And while there is a sense of alarm at the rise of the BJP among the left-of-centre members of the National Front-Left Front combine, anger is building within the Congress against its president, P.V. Narasimha Rao, for having allowed such a scenario to take shape. Leaders like K. Karunakaran and Rajesh Pilot, who are still in the party, and those of the ilk of Arjun Singh, N.D. Tiwari, Madhavrao Scindia and G.K. Moopanar, who have left the party but still consider themselves "true Congressmen", have started an informal dialogue and are expected to launch a bitter attack on Rao once the Lok Sabha election results come in. The knives are being sharpened, and Congress sources admit that if the party gets anything less than 150 to 160 seats, "the old man could be in serious trouble".
All these leaders are well aware that to prevent the BJP from capturing power at the Centre, they will have to align with the NF-LF combine, as well as other regional parties like the DMK in Tamil Nadu and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in Andhra Pradesh, to cobble together a majority and put forth a credible alternative before President Shankar Dayal Sharma.
The process has already been put in motion. Well-placed sources in the CPI(M), the leading constituent of the Left Front which wields substantial influence in the NF-LF combine, confirm it has received feelers both from former Congressmen like Arjun Singh and Scindia as well as from incumbent heavyweights Karunakaran and Sharad Pawar to help form a non-Rao, non-BJP government at the Centre. And to ensure its role as a major catalyst in such an eventuality, the CPI(M) has actually begun toying with the idea of joining such a government as a coalition partner. The confirmation came from none other than Jyoti Basu—set to win a record fifth term for the Left Front in West Bengal—who recently said his party may join a coalition at the Centre if the situation so demands. Sources in the CPI(M) feel that with the Left getting 60-odd seats and Laloo Prasad Yadav's Janata Dal notching up close to 40, the NF-LF is set to play kingmaker. They say CPI(M) leaders are under pressure from within the party, Left Front partners like the CPI and also the Janata Dal to help form a coalition as such a move would greatly enhance the government's credibility in the eyes of the people. A formal decision will be taken only after the party politburo meets in New Delhi on May 11-12, but even these remote signals have provided a major boost to efforts in this direction.
SENIOR Congress leader K. Karunakaran admits that he has been involved in efforts to reunite the Congress and woo back leaders like Arjun Singh, Scindia and Moopanar. "The process had started even before the poll notification. It slowed down somewhat due to electioneering, but we'll take it up once again," he said in Thrissoor. And Karunakaran is also categorical that he will do his utmost to keep the BJP out of power. "The need of the hour is to form a broad-based secular arrangement to keep the BJP away," he asserts. Karunakaran is understood to have privately told Left leaders that he is willing to work out a common programme with the NF-LF. Though Karunakaran refuses to comment on Rao's style of functioning "at this stage", he is quite clear that the leadership issue is still wide open.
In far away Chhindwara, Madhya Pradesh, hawala casualty Kamal Nath—who ran wife Alka's campaign after being denied a party nomination—voices similar sentiments. Scindia, whose new party had a heady campaign in Gwalior, says: "I have no dispute with the Congress, but I don't agree with the arbitrary method of functioning that characterises it now. I would like to bring together all Congressmen committed to the principles of Indiraji and Rajivji."
And in Maharashtra, though Sharad Pawar officially maintains that the Congress will get a majority on its own, his confidants aver that if the party manages to win only around 150 seats in the Lok Sabha and if 25 of these come from Maharashtra, the Maratha leader will make another bid for prime ministership. Pawar, who became Maharashtra's first non-Congress chief minister as leader of the Progressive Democratic Front coalition, has an excellent rapport with NF-LF leaders, and loyalists are confident that he will be able to solicit their support when it comes to the crunch. But he is too mature a politician to make a pitch at this stage and would like to be seen as a man who did not ditch the party, despite provocations from Rao.
WHETHER it is Karunakaran, Scindia or Pawar, their hopes for the top job in the country are primarily fuelled by the antipathy the Janata Dal and some regional parties have for Rao. DMK supremo M. Karunanidhi, whose offer for a state-level alliance against the AIADMK was spurned by Rao, is categorical: "We'll associate with neither the BJP nor the Rao Congress." Karunanidhi, in fact, seems quite enthused by the spectre of a hung Parliament and is confident that his party would again be a key player.
"We played a key role in providing answers whenever the nation was subjected to chaotic confusions. In 1969, when Mrs Gandhi needed support for her progressive initiatives, we helped her continue in power. In 1976-77, we played a major role in the formation of the Janata Party. We mooted the idea of the National Front and got it installed at Delhi in 1989. The opportunity is coming our way once again," says Karunanidhi. However, even as he rules out any association with either the 'Rao Congress' or the BJP, he warns that he should not be taken for granted. "In all these events once the deed was over, the north Indian leaders behaved in an ungrateful manner and ditched the DMK. We'll remember this while extending support to any secular formation at the Centre," he adds. The bitter memories may preclude the possibility of the DMK extending support to at least one potential consensus prime minister: Chandra Shekhar. For, he had dismissed the DMK government in Tamil Nadu after he became prime minister following the collapse of the National Front government in 1990.
Karunanidhi's alliance partner, Moopanar, is equally categorical that Rao has to be dumped in order to have a reasonable chance to form a non-BJP government. "First, we must identify a Congress leader who can lead us from the front and who is acceptable to all Congressmen. It is very difficult to accept Rao as prime minister again. A cohesive non-BJP, non-Rao front is possible."
The Janata Dal is no less sanguine. Senior Dal leader Jaipal Reddy, who claims the NF-LF will end up with more seats than the Congress, details the rationale: "We are a more flexible organisation than the Congress and the BJP.This is bound to get us greater support from small regional groups, more than the Congress or the BJP. Though the DMK is unfortunately not in the NF now, our past association as well as the fact that the CPI is their ally in Tamil Nadu will make it easier to win them over." It is this flexibility, Reddy points out, which allows both the warring factions of the TDP to be considered as part of the NF-LF combine. While the JD has an alliance with the Lakshmi Parvathi faction, the two communist parties have a tie-up with the Chandrababu Naidu group.
However, it would be premature to write off Rao. Loyalists say the bulk of party candidates, barring those in Maharashtra where Pawar managed to have a major say, were handpicked by Rao. The man who confounded everyone these five years—first emerging as minority prime minister, and then steadily consolidating his position to forge a majority—is unlikely to let go of the Congress reins easily. In that event, the party could well be headed for a split.
On the flip side is the BJP. Opinion is sharply divided within the Sangh parivar on whether the party should try manoeuvering a majority, if it falls short, with the help of its allies. The conservative stream of thought is that it would be more prudent for the BJP to sit out in the Opposition, mark time till a loose non-BJP combine collapses, and then make a final bid for Raisina Hill.
As for the third alternative, the biggest problem remains unresolved: there are too many leaders, but there can be only one prime minister. Can they agree on that individual?
Padmanand Jha with Lekha Rattanani,A.S.Pannerselvan, Ashis K. Biswas, Y.P.Rajesh, Ishan Joshi, K.S. Narayanan and S. Sivanand