SONIA Gandhi may not like it but she could well end up implementing bete noire P.V. Narasimha Rao's agenda of May 1996—stop the BJP from forming the government by hook or by crook. And if the BJP and allies fail to get to the magical 230 mark—when they can think of making a bid for power—the credit will go largely to Sonia's whirlwind electoral feat, matched perhaps only by Indira and Rajiv Gandhi.
In such a scenario, she would also be solely responsible for the surge of optimism that is sweeping the Congress (conservative party estimates put the tally above 165 with even talk that it could emerge as the single largest party). This, when everyone had thought the Congress was sinking into "irreversible decay". The only price the lady of 10, Janpath has had to pay is that with her plunge into politics she has made herself more vulnerable to criticism from opposition leaders.
"I am not sure about what the Congress will do, but I am pretty certain about what we will not do. That is, we will not allow them to form the government," Rao had asserted in 1996 to stop a BJP onslaught. Propping up the H.D. Deve Gowda government from outside was a natural corollary to that decision. Despite the fact that he has been denied a ticket this time around, Rao's words have become a mantra for the Congress, which is chanted on every occasion. Sonia followed the Rao agenda quite vigorously, and if the high turnout in the first phase of polling in many states benefits the Congress, she would have more than done her job.
Sonia's high-profile campaign has already reduced party president Sitaram Kesri to a non-entity. But ironically, this has also boosted the party's electoral prospects. Almost in keeping with the turnout in her election meetings, a large number of Dalits and Muslims stood in long queues to cast their votes on February 16.
BJP-ruled Rajasthan registered a record 61 per cent polling—17 per cent more than in the 1996 parliamentary elections. According to the state's chief electoral officer, Sudhir Varma, the larger turnout was due to "enthusiasm shown by women, scheduled castes and the scheduled tribes voters in the state". The female turnout—largely attributed to the Sonia factor—was up to 55 per cent compared to 37 per cent last time.
Karnataka, where 18 of the 28 constituencies went to the hustings on February 16, also registered a 66.5 per cent turnout, up 4. 6 per cent from the 1996 figure. Like Rajasthan, the higher turnout is being attributed to the women and Muslim voters. "The increase is due to the scare created by the BJP manifesto," says Congress Rajya Sabha member K. Rahman Khan. "The manifesto showed the BJP would not soft-pedal issues concerning minorities and exposed the supposedly moderate A. B. Vajpayee."
SO charged up was the community that Muslim organisations directed the fold not to waste their votes. These organisations actually conducted informal surveys in most constituencies to zero down on the candidates with the best chance of defeating the BJP. "In 1996, there was very little enthusiasm in the community as it was known that no party would get a majority. But this time with the threat of the BJP forming a government, the community was asked to vote for the Congress or Janata Dal candidate depending on who stood a better chance in their respective constituencies," Nasser Ahmed, a Congress leader and former minister, told Outlook.
With the Janata Dal ravaged by factionalism, the Congress clearly stands to gain. According to an estimate, the Muslim turnout was between 60 and 80 per cent in the first phase. A Congress success would, however, largely depend on whether the party retains the votes it secured last time. A similar enthusiasm from the slum population, including women, indicates a pro-Congress mood. But in the final count, the Congress gain will largely come from erstwhile supporters of the faction-hit Janata Dal, a party even the BJP has been eyeing.
Slums are largely plagued with illiteracy, but by apeing Indira Gandhi's campaign style, Sonia may have succeeded in convincing them that they should be grateful to the Indira and Rajiv Awas Yojana for their overhead shelters. And her "mere suhag is mitti mein mila hain" dialogue also had the desired impact, specially among the targeted crowd—the rural womenfolk.
Besides Kesri, the Sonia phenomenon has also shaken V.P. Singh, a persona non grata in the Gandhi household. Sonia has spoken ill about V.P. Singh and Vajpayee in her "reveal all on Bofors" speech. "I will not react to it now. At least, there should be some scope for dialogue after the results," said V.P. Singh, paving the way for a Congress-United Front alignment, especially after most opinion polls warned of a hung Parliament again. The JD veteran has also appealed to UF constituents and the Congress to prop up the strongest candidate against the BJP in the election.
Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav, who has aligned with the Congress in Maharashtra, even instructed his party units in some constituencies in Uttar Pradesh to work for the Congress as part of the anti-BJP campaign.
The Congress also banks on the UF's anti-BJP stance and counts on its support in the post-poll scenario on the assumption that the UF is going to be the largest secular grouping. "We expect them to support a Congress-led government," K. Vijaya Bhaskara Reddy, Congress Working Committee member, told the Hyderabad press last week. His sentiments were echoed by V.N. Gadgil, the party spokesperson, in Pune a day later.
Yet, the actual exercise in this direction will begin only, and if, the results indicate that the BJP and allies fail to muster less than 230 seats. But the exploratory moves are indeed heading towards a possible remarriage between the Congress and the UF.
Prime Minister I.K. Gujral, who contested from Jalandhar with Akali support, and his number two in the cabinet Ram Vilas Paswan might have certain reservations on such a tie-up though. Gujral lambasted the Congress for having pulled down his government on the Jain Commission issue "though it was actually to stop names in the Bofors case from coming out".
But Gujral does not dictate the UF's agenda as much as the Left Front or its bigger constituents do. While the Left is certain not to participate in a Congress-led government, they hate the BJP much more than the Congress—and might in the end prop it up. Mulayam, through his alliance with the Congress in Maharashtra, has indicated his willingess to be part of such a government.
But the Congress faces problems from regional parties. Despite the anti-BJP posture of the DMK and TMC in Tamil Nadu, the TDP in Andhra Pradesh and the Asom Gana Parishad, the Congress stance on the Jain Commission vis-a-vis the DMK on the Rajiv case, and its resolution at the Calcutta plenary that the growth of regional parties was in detriment to the national interest, are major hitches.
"We are confident that the TMC will merge with the Congress soon after the elections. For them, it is the now-or-never chance to get into the motherfold," claims an AICC general secretary. But for the DMK, the Congress will have to make a major comedown, dropping the Jain Commission issue from a possible common minimum programme. But again, will hardliners like Arjun Singh agree to that?
As for the TDP in Andhra, which is stridently anti-Congress, it is most likely that it will opt for the BJP should the party need them and if it has to make a choice. Ditto the AGP. This could make things difficult for the United Front. The Congress, of course, has played a big role in disturbing UF equations—first by bringing down the government, and then by dictating the alliance terms or the affiliation of all its allies, including the Left Front. Now, the latter seems to be reconciled to the dynasty if the only option is "communalism".
The Congress has come to occupy centrestage in secular politics once again. Sonia's success lies not only in the fact that she might garner a few more seats for the party but that she may be able to formulate a largely acceptable common minimum programme to motivate the anti-BJP parties.