Seeking to fish in troubled waters, Congress on Saturday extended an olive branch to JD(U) describing it as a "secular and like-minded party" on the eve of a possible decision by Nitish Kumar's party to snap ties with the BJP-led NDA.
At a time when Narendra Modi has become the poster boy of the BJP, the ruling Congress called for an alliance of secular forces in nation's interest.
"JD(U) is a like-minded party, which has faith in secularism. It is in alliance with a party with which its idelogy does not match," party spokesman Bhakta Charan Das told reporters sending clear signals for the first time that Congress was not averse to doing business with Kumar's party.
His comments came close on the heels of party Vice President Rahul Gandhi's remarks in Srinagar that any decision on inviting JD(U) to join UPA will be taken by senior Congress leaders.
JD(U), the second largest constituent of the NDA with 20 Lok Sabha seats, is set to walk out of a 17 year-old association with the BJP following the elevation of Narendra Modi as chief of BJP's election campaign committee. The Bihar Chief Minister has a strong antipathy for Modi.
The Congress' call for the coming together of "like minded secular forces" came at a time when regional leaders like Naveen Patnaik, Mamata Banerjee and Kumar are talking about the formation of a Federal Front of non-Congress, non-BJP parties.
"Like-minded secular parties have come together in the past and can come together even in future. Political formation of like-minded forces in the interest of the nation can happen any time," Das said.
Congress is sharing power at the Centre since May 2004 after the UPA under Sonia Gandhi ousted Atal Behari Vajpayee- led NDA from power.
It has also formed a committee headed by senior leader A K Antony to go into the issue of alliances as part of finding new friends and allies ahead of the Lok Sabha polls less than a year away.
Das steered clear of questions whether the JD(U) or the RJD is its natural ally in Bihar and which of the two it considers as more secular.
JD(U)'s principal rival in Bihar politics Lalu Prasad's RJD is an outside ally of UPA-II. Prasad was a minister in UPA-I but had contested the last Lok Sabha election in Bihar separately from Congress.
Prasad, who as Chief Minister of Bihar in 1990 ordered the arrest of L K Advani, when he was on Rathyatra during the peak of Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute, has repeatedly been calling for a secular alliance at the Centre for next general elections.
"Both parties advocate secularism. Today, we are with the RJD. There is no confusion on it. Tomorrow if some situation emerges, our leaders will look into that. It's not the time for us to comment on it," he said when asked which of the two Congress will prefer.
There is a view in the Congress that if JD(U) parts ways from BJP, it will most likely support Congress as Third Front cannot emerge, whereas RJD, too, will continue to back UPA.
Claiming that only Congress can provide a strong and stable government at the Centre even in future, Das said that there are internal "contradictions and confronations" within the Opposition and they do not seem to be in a position to provide an alternative to Congress.
The Congress spokesperson said that formulation of secular parties is possible if these parties are concerned for the country's development.
To a question whether any Third Front can emerge, he said, "There are many political parties, who have their own policies. Any formulation can happen, but it is only Congress, which can provide a stable government."
Striking a similar note, NCP general secretary D P Tripathi, whose party is part of the UPA said in Mumbai, "We welcome JD(U) to separate from BJP and join secular forces".
Incidentally, the Congress statement came a couple of days after the CPI-M mouthpiece People's Democracy said the task is clear cut for the Left and democratic forces - apart from fighting Congress policies, all efforts must be concentrated to defeat the Modi-led BJP in the coming elections.
A Congress leader speaking separately on the condition of anonymity admitted that Modi's projection in the BJP could draw a number of parties with a secular plank towards Congress. He expressed confidence of the emergence of an enlarged umbrella UPA III coming to power in the next general elections.
Commenting on the JDU-BJP relationship, he said, it was a "forced marriage" by the parties to keep their existence alive in the electoral politics of Bihar.
Sounding dismissive of Modi's capability to bring the BJP to power, the leader said that even in past when strong Chief Ministers dabbled in national politics, they not only failed to make any wave here but also were ultimate losers in their states.
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