IN the war of letters and political brinkmanship that currently engulfs Delhi and Chennai, the Congress remains a crucial factor. Because no matter how much the Yadav duo, Mulayam and Laloo, rave and rant, no matter how vitriolic Jayalalitha gets, no matter how much the Left parties want to get rid of the BJP, an uncommitted Congress will throw cold water on all their plans.
Despite Congress president Sonia Gandhi's repeated statements that she is not interested, there have been parleys. "We are in touch with Jayalalitha," admits party spokesman Ajit Jogi, "and we will look at the situation when the BJP government falls," echoing Sonia's views that the Congress is prepared to take over.
Thus, Sonia called on CPI(M) leader Harkishen Singh Surjeet last Tuesday to assure him that her party would not "shirk responsibility". She also met CPI leaders Indrajit Gupta and A.B. Bardhan. Impressed with what he termed her "political maturity", Surjeet assured her of cooperation from the Left Front and the Rashtriya Loktantrik Morcha (RLM). At the same meeting, the Congress and Left decided to sink their differences over economic policy and adopt a joint platform on poverty eradication.
Assured of support from the CPI(M), CPI and RLM, the Congress has begun sounding out smaller parties. "We are in constant touch with Farooq Abdullah, Gegong Apang and Om Prakash Chautala. There may be a split in Samata, JD and the Biju Janata Dal," says Congress MP Girija Vyas. The Congress is also confident of support from the Bahujan Samaj Party.
With BJP-AIADMK relations at its lowest ebb, the Congress has to organise its act. Admits Jogi: "We were hoping to wait until November, after the assembly elections in four states, but it looks as if matters could be precipitated any moment." While a handful of CWC members like Rajesh Pilot and Balram Jakhar feel it's high time the Congress made a pitch for power, others hope Vajpayee will limp along till November. "But that seems unlikely. The moment the BJP and AIADMK part ways, the RLM and the LF will demand Vajpayee's head. We can't afford to appear inactive in such a scenario," says a CWC member.
Congress leaders, however, acknowledge that any new government would be a strictly interim arrangement—they want to go in for general elections next year. In keeping with this gameplan, they admit that Sonia is unlikely to assume the office of PM. A fourth name has recently been added to the three—Sharad Pawar, P.A. Sangma and Manmohan Singh—already doing the rounds: that of P. Shiv Shankar.
The party is simultaneously trying to paper over its internal differences. Justifying Pawar's stand that Sonia would not be the automatic choice for PM, an MP close to the CWC member says: "The statement was in line with Soniaji's thinking. She herself is not interested in assuming the mantle now and we would not like her to head a temporary formation subject to pulls and pressures of various allies."
The DMK's stand is crucial in the numbers game. As early as three weeks ago, the Congress had indicated it would align with the AIADMK against the DMK. When former PM V.P. Singh tried to play peacemaker, the Congress distanced itself from the DMK by demanding that M. Karunanidhi's role in the Rajiv assassination be probed. Following a meeting with the DMK's Mura-soli Maran, Surjeet agreed the DMK would go its own way because
"AIADMK and DMK cannot exist in the same front". However, he is trying to persuade Maran not to extend active support to the BJP. The Congress is keeping a wary eye on the JD, whose secretary-general, Ram Vilas Paswan, recently occupied an anti-Laloo platform with the Samata-BJP. While Paswan claims "the JD will go with the secular front," suspicion that he may do a last-minute skip is rife.
The LF, too, is divided, with the RSP and Forward Bloc still refusing to toe the CPI(M) line. "They are impatient and hot-headed, but they will come around," says Surjeet. Within the Congress allies, there are differences over whether or not to join the government. While the CPI(M) and Samajwadi Party indicated that they would extend support from outside, RJD MPs are keen on ministerial berths. "There's no question of our not joining the government," says the RJD's M.A.A. Fatmi.
The Left feels its strength as a pressure group would decline if the RLM were to become a partner. On the other hand, President K.R. Narayanan may not accept an unstable government. Also, he may not choose to demand a floor test, which would involve convening a special session of Parliament, before the assembly polls. But all these possibilities come into the reckoning only if the Congress makes up its mind.