In a clear message to Bihar Chief Minister and Janata Dal-United leader Nitish Kumar that there is a vacancy in the United Progressive Alliance from Bihar and that the Congress would not be averse to a relationship with him in times to come, the Congress virtually severed its ties with Lalu Prasad Yadav in what can be called the end of a "long and beautiful relationship."
Having fired one round of ammunition against Lalu Yadav on his home turf of Bihar, Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, this time decided to use Pranab Mukherjee, the number two in the government to read the riot act to Lalu Yadav. While she was to address meetings in Bihar, Gandhi cancelled her visit to the state for no specified reasons and instead Mukherjee was chosen to dump Lalu and woo Nitish.
Pranab Mukherjee said that the alliance with Lalu Yadav is over and that he would find it difficult to even be a part of the next government as he has betrayed the UPA. "Who will form government? Bharatiya Janata Party, National Democratic Alliance or the Third Front or Lalu? Leave alone forming the government, Lalu will find it difficult to become even a minister because he is with nobody (not in any major front)," Mukherjee told an election rally at Samastipur, Bihar.
Sources say that Congress president Sonia Gandhi has been deeply aggrieved at the manner in which Lalu has been attacking the Congress party. His barb that the Congress was responsible for the demolition of the Babri Masjid is being seen by Congress leaders as an attempt to win over Muslim votes since the Congress has put up candidates in all
the 40 Bihar seats and a large chunk of the Muslim vote has deserted the Rashtriya Janata Dal with the party slated to lose a number of seats in these elections.
But his latest offering, questioning the choice of Manmohan Singh as the UPA's prime ministerial candidate has upset Sonia Gandhi, say Congress leaders since it is her personal decision to go to the polls showcasing him as the leader and achievements of the UPA government under his stewardship.
It is interesting that Mukherjee's remarks came barely hours after Lalu said it could not be taken for granted that Manmohan Singh was the UPA government's future prime minister. For the Congress president this sounds too much like Sharad Pawar and the line that he has been pugging though Pawar, in classic Pawar style has been changing his
statements with increasing frequency. Lalu's U-turn is being seen by the Congress as a sign that all is not well for the Yadav strongman who was once seen as invincible in Bihar.
Earlier, RJD chief Lalu Prasad had said that Manmohan Singh as prime minister could not be taken for granted and UPA constituents will sit together after the elections to choose their nominee for the top post.
The Railway Minister, who all along has maintained that Manmohan Singh was the UPA candidate, on Tuesday sang a different tune.In a somersault Lalu said "The UPA is a confederation of secular parties and does not belong only to the Congress. We will sit together (after the elections are over) to chalk out a common minimum programme and in consultation with all our partners select a leader who will be the prime minister."
As Bihar Congress president Anil Sharma sought Lalu's sacking from the union cabinet, Lalu asserted he was not there at the mercy of the Congress but because of the people's mandate.
Calling upon the people to vote for Congress for 'further strengthening the country', Pranab Mukherjee defended his party's decision to go it alone in the state."We decided that the party will go it alone in Bihar not only in the Lok Sabha polls, but also in the next assembly elections," he said.
Sources in the Congress state that the reason why Congress has escalated the war of words with Lalu Yadav is their assessment that he is expected to perform poorly in the elections and would be dropping a large number of seats. A section of the party feels that the time is ripe to wean Nitish away from the NDA and if he performs as well as is
expected, the Congress would like to be there to catch him. Sources say that the two parties are already in touch with emissaries and much will depend on whether the Congress can continue to be retain its tag of being the single largest party, in the post-poll scenario.