ON December 9, as Sonia Gandhi turned 51, Congress leaders made a beeline to 10 Janpath, the Mecca of their hope. But as she smiled radiantly at all her well-wishers, she still gave no indication of any desire to lead the Congress, or even its election campaign. Not that it dampened their optimism. Three days later, Sitaram Kesri, president of a party which completes 112 years of its existence on December 28, told an extended meeting of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) that he would not be found wanting in efforts to cajole and persuade her.
Sonia apart, the Congress' electoral prospects hinge on two factors: striking alliances and cashing in on likely voter hostility towards incumbent governments (except for Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and some Northeastern states, which return little more than 70 members to the Lok Sabha, the rest of the country has non-Congress governments). This probably accounts for the prevalent reasoning among state Congress chiefs that their prospects this time are much brighter than they were in 1996.
So much so that Kesri, at least to keep their electoral morale high, has forecast the installation of a Congress government at the Centre, notwithstanding his two fiascos this April and November. In fact, at the moment the disgust mixed with apprehension among a section of the party, which thinks mid-term elections were absolutely unnecessary and were forced on the nation by the hardliners within the Congress after making the Jain Commission report an issue, has visibly decreased.
Given the party's faith in the incumbency factor, the Congress leadership even dismissed the spate of rebellions in various states as "nothing of much significance". Bihar's three-time chief minister Jagannath Mishra and former Union ministers Ram Lakhan Singh Yadav and Krishna Sahi have already declared their intent to fight the election under the banner of a new party. In West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee's four-month-old Trinamul Congress is likely to contest at least 20 of the 42 constituencies in the state. S. Bangarappa, who recently dissociated himself from the Congress, is determined to strike an alliance with the BJP in Karnataka.
Then there is the infighting in various state units, the most significant being Uttar Pradesh. The N.D. Tiwari-Kesri pact has come as a blighter for Congress vice-president Jitendra Prasada's quest for a conclusive say in the selection of party candidates in the state.
There is no gainsaying the fact that all these rebellions will help the BJP. Something Congress leaders refuse to admit. For instance, Bihar PCC chief Sarfraz Ahmed claims: "Rebellion by these rootless leaders will not harm the Congress' prospects at all in the state." But his optimism stems solely from Laloo Prasad Yadav's willingness to negotiate an alliance, with the Congress as a junior partner. There are indications that Laloo is amenable to the idea of giving 12-15 seats out of a total of 54 to its allies, which in the state might include the Congress, the BSP and Chandra Shekhar's Rashtriya Samajwadi Party. (The Congress had just two members from Bihar in the 11th Lok Sabha. )
"We will decide our allies according to local needs and the state parties will have a crucial say in that," says AICC general secretary Tariq Anwar. But with the DMK-TMC alliance secure for now, the Congress only has the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu and the Republican Party of India (RPI) in Maharashtra as prospective allies. On December 10, CWC member K. Vijaya Bhaskara Reddy flew down to Chennai to broker a deal with Jayalalitha and state Congress president Thangabalu reported that her initial response was 'positive'.
THE party is also seeking an alliance with the BSP, at least in UP, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab. Both Kesri and Arjun Singh have tried to project BSP, and especially Mayawati, as a victim of the United Front's 'unprincipled' politics which forced the Dalit party into the BJP's lap.
But for the most part, the party will be on its own. Says a Congress general secretary: "Now that Mulayam Singh Yadav has declined to have a formal alliance with the Congress, we will be contesting more than 450 seats." What is crucial for the Congress is that its tally should be more than the lowest-ever 143 it managed in the last elections, as its emergence as the single largest party in the 'secular side' could still establish its legitimacy to stake a claim as it would then not be construed as a negative verdict.
Meanwhile, Kesri has instructed Congress party chiefs to submit the list of candidates by the end of December to give the central leadership enough time to assess the prospects of individual candidates. Indeed, the party's real problems will start after that. It might have joined issue with the BJP over its claim that about 40 Congress MPs were willing to get onto the saffron bandwagon, but leaders privately admit that only the number was exaggerated. Besides the likes of Mamata and Bangarappa, the party high command is convinced that about two dozen MPs were actually hobnobbing with the BJP and therefore do not merit renomination.
The Congress is also in touch with Ramakrishna Hegde in Karnataka as both he and Kesri find in H.D. Deve Gowda a common foe. In fact, this is the only state where the Congress is confident of a good showing, given the vertical division in the ruling Janata Dal. An alliance with Hegde would surely consolidate its position.
Interestingly, the Congress' resolution at the Calcutta plenary this August had identified regional parties as almost untouchable "as their growth is detrimental to the national interest". As senior CWC member Arjun Singh said: "Our emphasis was that the national aspiration should assimilate all regional aspirations so that what needs to be done for the region becomes part of an overall national effort. Some regional parties say that the overall national picture does not matter, this is what we do not agree with."
As for Kesri's predicament—despite not being in favour of elections, he had to follow the dictates of hardliners on withdrawal of support—many draw a parallel with P.V. Narasimha Rao immediately after the demolition of the Babri mosque. Just as Rao was forced to fall in line with hardliners till he recovered his position, so it has been with Kesri this time around.
"If it was a question of individual line, not a single Lok Sabha member other than Vijaya Bhaskara Reddy was in favour of withdrawal and dissolution. All others were either Rajya Sabha members or those waiting to take a chance after the 1996 election. We are guilty of not pressing for a division," says a senior Lok Sabha member. Though any official post-mortem on the issue is unlikely, sitting MPs tend to agree with the assessment of A. R. Antulay that the Jain Commission report will not evoke any sympathy among voters in these elections, the third after Rajiv Gandhi's assassination. (In 1991, there were still over 200 constituencies yet to go to the polls when the assassination took place.)
Tactically, the Congress still keeps criticising the UF for foisting elections, creating an economic mess and mishandling the external and internal threat perceptions. This serves a twin purpose: it seeks to validate withdrawal of support by pleading before the electorate that what it did was in the national interest. Thereby implying that by not supporting the Congress-led government, the UF was responsible for foisting on the country yet another avoidable election.
As Arjun Singh asserts: "We were not wrong in expecting some reciprocity from the UF. If they were sincerely interested in checkmating the BJP, they could have had some preelection arrangement with secular parties before the (1996) elections, or at least they could have supported a BSP-Congress government in Uttar Pradesh." However, while Kesri has constituted the routine manifesto, coordination and election committees, the search for a viable electoral plank is still on. Anti-BJPism, like in 1996, might be a handy umbrella for post-election tie-ups in the event of a hung Parliament, but by and large the Congress is looking towards its allies to rescue it. And the perceived anti-incumbency mood of the voters has given the party reason to hope.