HECTIC rounds of talks followed a splintered mandate. Telephones buzzed from left to right, crossing party lines, in an effort to muster the majority mark which could be used to convince President Shankar Dayal Sharma that he should invite a non-Bharatiya Janata Party formulation to form the government. The saffron brigade had marched far too ahead of both the Congress and the National Front-Left Front combine and unless they got their act together fast, the President would have no option but to invite Atal Behari Vajpayee of the BJP, the largest single party, to head the new government at the Centre.
The initiative, to begin with, seemed to be with the Left parties. They had played the major role in striking the alliances for the National Front before the elections, and were convinced that they would be able to cobble a majority with the aid of regional parties and elements in the Congress. Their own performance in the polls—the victories in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, and the splendid showing by their allies like the Telugu Desam (Naidu) and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), added to the euphoria. But as the final results were being totted, their euphoria was visibly dampened. The arithmetic of the new Lok Sabha made it obvious that the Congress, with around 135 seats, would still hold the balance in the efforts to keep the BJP out of power.
The worry was there for all to see at the new Bihar Bhavan, which had emerged as the centre of confabulations between the Janata Dal and Left leaders, as well as at the CPI(M) headquarters where the party sat over the weekend to deliberate its course of action. The Congress camp was equally concerned and leaders like K. Karunakaran, Rajesh Pilot and Ahmed Patel wondered whether the party would be able to do business with the Left parties-led ‘secular front’ with Rao at the helm of the Congress. Both the CPI(M) and the Janata Dal had made no bones about their aversion for Rao, and the fear was that his continuation as leader could come in the way of the goal of stalling the BJP. Began the little war games in the 111-year party. The effort to oust party president Narasimha Rao ran like a parallel side-show in the greater government-forming drama.
Union Industries Minister K. Karunakaran returned from the defeat at Thrissoor and took up his recently acquired mantle at the helm of the ‘oust Rao’ effort. "If the verdict of Thrissoor had been different, things would have been different," said Rao’s onetime friend, Karunakaran. He tried his best to bridge the difference. Like in 1991 when he spared no effort to help Rao become the Prime Minister, the Kerala leader maintained a busy schedule and met a number of disgruntled Congress leaders who called at his residence on Krishna Menon Marg, and stepped up the endeavour to push Rao out and select a new leader.
He was among the eight leaders—Rajesh Pilot, Ahmed Patel, Sharad Pawar, Vijaya Bhaskara Reddy, Meira Kumar, Balram Jakhar and Ghulam Nabi Azad—who came together and decided to force Rao to hold a Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting before the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP) met. Karunakaran and Reddy later called on the Prime Minister and conveyed the decision. Rajesh Pilot, who was also pushing for a change in leadership, had already thrown his hat in the ring. "If Pawar doesn’t contest, I will," said Pilot. It turned out to be the usual Congress damp squib, with party men reaffirming faith in Rao’s leadership. "It is like December ’92. Three or four prominent leaders challenged Narasimha Rao. They wanted him to step down. The resolution that was passed certainly had nothing to do with their original demand. This time was no different," said a Congress MP.
Meanwhile the CPI(M), the Janata Dal and the CPI leaders kept up with their efforts to rope in the regional satraps. The aim was not only to get their support for the ‘secular alternative’ but also to ensure that they did not fall prey to the overtures being made by the BJP. Naidu was not really a problem. He had fought the elections as an ally of the CPI and the CPI(M) and could be counted on. So could Prafulla Kumar Mahanta of the AGP in Assam. But what about the DMK-Tamil Maanila Congress combine in Tamil Nadu? The fears increased when on the second day of counting, Vajpayee rang up Karunanidhi to congratulate him on the DMK sweeping Tamil Nadu. Former Prime Minister V.P. Singh quickly rang up the DMK chief to solicit his support for the combine. He was the only man—apart from CPI leaders like Indrajit Gupta—who could have done that in any case. For the officials of the Janata Dal had rubbed him the wrong way when they flirted with Jayalalitha over a year ago, driving him out of the National Front. And the CPI(M) had allied with his second arch enemy V. Gopalsamy of the MDMK in the elections. Karunanidhi told V.P. Singh that he would support the secular effort provided he took over the mantle of the Prime Minister. V.P. Singh, according to sources, patiently explained his reasons for not being in the race, and reiterated that Karunanidhi was vital to the secular front. Karunanidhi made reassuring noises but appeared to be awaiting the results of the efforts before totally committing himself to the cause.
MOOPANAR of the TMC was easier to tackle. Claiming to be true inheritors of the secular legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, his colleague, P. Chidambaram, said there was no question of joining hands with the BJP. When Moopanar arrived in Delhi, he was beseeched by callers from both the Congress and the JD-Left combine. He also told them that they had nothing to fear. His block of 20 MPs would not vote with the BJP.
But all this time the leaders of the combine kept a close watch on the Congress affairs. There was a guarded sigh of relief when Karunakaran said after a CWC meeting on Sunday afternoon that the party had decided to support the NF-LF efforts to form a secular government. But creases had begun to appear on the foreheads of the NF-Left leaders again by the evening when news of the re-election of Rao as CPP leader came in and when the party released the text of the resolution which had been adopted at the CWC meeting. The resolution did not mention the NF or the LF as it said that it had "decided to take positive steps in support of the process of the formation of a government by political parties which are totally committed to secular democracy". And the fears were compounded when party spokesperson V.N. Gadgil, despite persistent questioning, would not answer whether the Congress planned to form the Government and refused to commit the party’s position. "All options are open," he said repeatedly.
A senior Janata Dal leader sounded worried. "We have no idea what Machiavelli is up to. If he suddenly announces on Monday or Tuesday that he would stake a claim for the top job himself, the entire efforts could flounder badly. For that could cause a deep divide in the combine. For one, the DMK-TMC would never agree to support Rao as Prime Minister. And the JD could split vertically." So at the end of it all, in sheer numerical terms, the secular effort appeared to have a very good chance of mustering a majority with the 135 seats of the Congress, the 100-odd members of the NF-LF combine and their pre-election allies, and the 37 MPs of the DMK-TMC alliance. But Rao could undo it all. The only hope is that Congress leaders like Pilot, Karunakaran and Pawar will not allow the move for a non-BJP, non-Rao alternative to be scuttled.