IT 7.30 pm on Holi, Janata Dal president Sharad Yadav got the call he'd been expecting; it was Congress leader Sharad Pawar, confirming that the AIADMK had decided to back the BJP. Pawar's news was greeted with equanimity—almost relief—by the United Front, whose leaders were not so optimistic about forming a non-BJP government anyway.
Then Sonia Gandhi II happened. The CPI(M)'s Jyoti Basu and the Samajwadi Party's Mulayam Singh Yadav made renewed declarations of support to the Congress, but other Front partners preferred to wait and watch. Realistically, they felt the UF and the Congress, with BSP and Independents, could muster no more than 263 MPs (minus the TDP and AIADMK) at best.
To make a bid with inadequate numbers might expose them to the same ridicule they were now heaping on the BJP's fragile coalition. The prevailing opinion was to allow the BJP to form a government and let it sink under the weight of its own contradictions. "We should not be seen as frantic to make a bid, before the BJP fails," said a UF core group member.
At the heart of the UF's resigned acceptance of a role in the opposition is TDP leader Chandrababu Naidu's insistence that his 12 will not go out to bat for the Congress in Parliament. Sonia's takeover as Congress chief made matters worse—Naidu had once suggested that Indian citizens of foreign origin be debarred from holding key public offices. In sharp contrast, CPI(M) general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet said, "One has to deal with parties, not individuals."
During an informal meeting at 7, Race Course Road on Holi, UF leaders called up Naidu in Hyderabad to persuade him to change his mind about abstaining in a vote of confidence brought by the BJP (thus allowing its government to survive). Naidu didn't budge. The UF convenor had taken the high moral ground at the core group meeting, reminding the partners that the Front was formed on the principle of equidistance from the BJP and Congress and not merely as a power-sharing arrangement. He refused to be bullied into backing a resolution for a vote against the BJP during the floor-test, asking why a similar one should not simultaneously be passed against the Congress, if it staked a claim to form the government.
Naidu's strategy is one of keeping his options open. Regional compulsions demand that he cannot facilitate a Congress-led coalition. At the same time, he does not want to openly align with the BJP and become party to probable difficulties (in managing its unwieldy coalition). Hence, his insistence on neutrality.
"What neutrality? First thing is (to defeat) the BJP. Why bring in Congress?" quips Surjeet. The Left Front, like the UF, is divided over the issue of anti-Congressism. The Kerala CPI(M)is not quite in agreement with the West Bengal unit's post-Trinamul, pro-Congress stance. Nor is the CPI, while the Forward Bloc and the RSP are against a Congress-led coalition. "We are against the dynasty but we may have to support the Congress to avoid a poll," says Sharad Yadav.
The most viable way out of the impasse would be a UF-led coalition with the Congress participating in the government. But none of the UF leaders is optimistic about persuading the Congress to yield the palm to G.K. Moopanar, Mulayam Singh Yadav or Basu.
The pro-Congress Mulayam Singh responded to Naidu's uncompromising stand against a Congress prime minister by promising to take on the Andhra Pradesh chief minister on his own turf. A miffed Naidu thereafter refused to come to the capital. He spoke to President K.R. Narayanan on the telephone and clarified his stand, promising to back it up with a formal letter. The faultlines in the UF deepened. Another potential hazard to UF unity is the rumoured deal between Pawar and Jayalalitha to pull the rug from under the BJP in the House. Any truck with the AIADMK could alienate the DMK.
At a time when the UF is likely to lose a key player, Bihar strong-man Laloo Prasad Yadav is knocking at its door. In the overall numbers game, his induction into the UF counts for nothing because he is already part of the non-BJP front. But his presence in the UF might boost its bargaining power vis-a-vis the Congress if it makes a push for the prime ministership, a JD leader felt.
The only opposition to the induction of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) is from the JD itself, many of whose members have yet to forgive Laloo for having split the party and then trounced its president at the hustings. Sharad loyalists are unhappy at the prospect. "The party is under the control of losers," said a JD leader.
"The merger of the JD and RJD is inevitable," observed former Union minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh. He pointed out that the RJD had won 17 seats in Bihar against the JD's one seat. While JD MP Ram Vilas Paswan ruled out Laloo's return to both the JD and the UF, a Laloo aide said "it is being worked out but will take time".
For Laloo, whose proposed Jan Morcha failed to take off, a return to the UF offers an opportunity to play a key role at the Centre, besides some degree of protection against the dismissal of the Rabri Devi government in Bihar, as the Samata Party has been demanding. His pal Sitaram Kesri having been ousted, Laloo needs friends in New Delhi. So confident is Laloo of his return to the UF that he threatened, tongue-in-cheek, to attend the core group's meeting on March 10. "I will set Naidu straight," promised the Bihar stalwart.