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Congress president Sonia Gandhi's desperate—and belated?—bid to reinvent herself as a coalition-builder has yielded preliminary results, with the vague outlines of a pre-electoral "Secular Progressive Alliance" taking shape. The SPA, according to the Congress gameplan, will also endeavour to have seat adjustments with the Left-led third front to maintain the integrity of the secular vote. The two fronts have a broad understanding on a post-electoral tie-up, with the proposed government to be led by the formation that has the most seats.
The most stiff-necked of parties, the Congress is now stooping to conquer. And the results are showing. After 24 frosty years the Congress and the dmk have buried the hatchet and announced an alliance in Tamil Nadu led by M. Karunanidhi. Apart from making overtures across the 'secular' spectrum, the newly media-friendly Sonia is working to recast her image—from that of a wronged widow to that of a credible leader.
Old habits die hard, however. The Pranab Mukherjee panel report on election strategy couldn't resist saying that although alliances are the order of the day, the Congress in the long term believes in one-party government. For now, it has set itself the task of cobbling together a credible formation "preferably within January 2004". Observes a senior leader: "In the next fortnight, you will see hard bargaining between the Congress and its proposed allies, to the extent that it may appear as if talks have broken down." Privately, Congress leaders acknowledge that the party, which contested 453 seats in 1999, will have to yield close to a hundred seats to allies this time. Publicly, they stick to the figure of 430-plus seats.
Although the Congress is in election mode, many senior leaders aren't sure that polls would be advanced. Pranab dismisses the proposed vote-on-account as "juvenile adventurism". Regardless of the poll's timing, the party, to ensure maximum credibility and "higher name recognition", plans to have its alliance in place.
Sonia is undertaking the initial talks herself. She's the ice-breaker this time. She has a direct channel to Mayawati (and Kanshi Ram, whom she was the first to visit in hospital) and will call on the BSP leader on her birthday on January 15.
Sonia is also speaking to NCP chief Sharad Pawar directly, although Maharashtra chief minister Sushilkumar Shinde and AICC general secretary Vyalar Ravi are handling the minutiae. And then Sonia enjoys a personal rapport with both RJD supremo Laloo Prasad Yadav and J&K CM Mufti Mohammed Sayeed. As for the third front, she has an excellent equation with CPI(M) general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet. But she has purportedly told senior party leaders that she does not entirely trust Samajwadi Party boss Mulayam Singh Yadav in a post-electoral scenario. It's still early days for the SPA. In fact, partymen say the name of the formation will only be decided after consulting alliance partners. "There's some discomfort with the use of the word 'secular'," a Congress MP admitted.
Congress leaders acknowledge the BSP is the bottomline. Only if the two come together in UP can the SPA offer a credible challenge to the NDA. "We will have three kinds of alliances: all-India, multi-state and single-state," says Mukherjee. The BSP falls in the second category. The Congress would ideally like a tie-up with the BSP in all of north India.
Unfortunately for the Congress, Mayawati is also the toughest nut to crack. Says BSP MLC and spokesperson Sudhir Goel: "An alliance is a Congress compulsion, not ours. What can they bring to the table?" The Congress contention, as articulated by spokesman S. Jaipal Reddy, is that it can pull the Muslim and the upper-caste vote, which the BSP can use to improve its tally.Responds Goel: "Our vote is transferable. Theirs is not."
The logic of a pre-electoral tie-up between the Congress and the NCP in Maharashtra is even more powerful. NCP MP Praful Patel admits as much, while hastening to add that a decision will be taken only next week. No one likes to be taken for granted and Pawar's short-lived flirtation with the NDA is being seen in that light. "Pawar will go with the Congress even if it means a split in the NCP," says a party MP. NCP leader Purno Sangma's pro-NDA stance is no secret, but Pawar is likely to make every effort to keep him within the fold and short of joining the saffron throng.
Sonia has clarified the party's doors are open to even the smallest player: the Telangana Rashtriya Samiti in Andhra, the Gondwana Gantantra Party in Orissa and MP, Kalyan Singh and Ajit Singh in UP, the Trinamool minus Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, Ram Vilas Paswan, MDMK. In fact, just about anybody who isn't in the NDA. A pre-poll alliance with the RJD is also on the cards, much to the dismay of the Bihar PCC. And P. Chidambaram may be poised to end his sanyas from the party.
Alliances are being worked out behind closed doors, but the most visible change is in the atmospherics at the AICC. The buzzwords are "innovate", "professionalise", "strategise" and "optimise". There's a hum around Raisina Hill as techno-friendly young Turks initiate the old guard into power-point presentations from psephologists and advertising professionals. Leaders are studying the BJP's campaign techniques, having sourced CDs detailing the party's successful strategies in MP, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan as well as its innovative publicity material and use of cable networks for electioneering. Professionals are assisting the party in getting its campaign together. The biggest challenge: repackaging Sonia.
The Congress' team of backroom strategists, divided into several sub-committees, have been told not to contest. A countrywide pre-poll survey is already under way, assisted by software experts. A panel has also been mooted to figure out how to regain SC/ST support. But that's in the long term. The party's mantra for the here and now is "all together".