Has the BJP's India Shining blitzkrieg dimmed Congress' hopes of a comeback? No, going by the upbeat mood among Congress president Sonia Gandhi's stormtroopers who seem to belie BJP's hyper-confidence. The look of abject defeat the party wore after the assembly polls is dissipating. Congressmen say the party cannot but improve its tally in Lok Sabha 2004 and the BJP cannot but lose ground. It's a question of "arithmetic".
"Look at the map of India and tell me where the NDA stands a chance of substantial improvement," says Congress spokesperson S. Jaipal Reddy. The BJP, having reached a plateau in virtually all the states in 1999, stands to gain marginally only in Karnataka, Punjab and Assam, he points out. The Congress, on the other hand, has plenty of scope for improvement, given the pre-electoral alliances it is putting together.
In the states where it is in second position in terms of voteshare, the Congress has only 30 of a possible 184 seats. So, there's no place to go but up, say Congress strategists. (In AP, for instance, the Congress has only five of 42 seats and in Orissa, two of 21. In Rajasthan, it has nine of 25 and in MP, eight of 29. In Delhi, Himachal Pradesh and Haryana combined, it has zero out of 21. In Gujarat, it has six of 26). The gains in these seats will not only make up for potential losses in Karnataka, Assam and Punjab (where it has 38 of 55 seats), but also boost the party's tally.
In the four big states where it is in third or fourth position (Tamil Nadu, UP, Bihar, West Bengal) which add up to 202 seats, it was not strongly in the running the last time because it had no alliance partners. This time, the situation is different. In West Bengal, since the Left Front is a post-electoral ally, the Congress isn't too concerned about boosting its own tally. Likewise, in TN and Bihar, where it has allied with the DMK front and the RJD as a junior partner, its own score will go up.
In TN, the emergence of the DMK-led front may lead to the two lonely hearts—BJP and AIADMK—getting together. But for now, it's Amma versus the rest, with the BJP playing spectator. It looks as if the DMK, with 12 seats and a 23 per cent voteshare, plus the PMK, MDMK and Congress (11 per cent voteshare) are set to do rather well.
For the Congress, the key states are the two giants, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. The party hopes to check the BJP, and perhaps even improve its own tally, in both these states through judicious alliances. The primary objective being to keep the BJP tally down, the Congress is willing to indulge its allies in terms of seat-sharing.
Ahead of the tea and 'mutual sympathy' meeting between Sonia Gandhi and NCP chief Sharad Pawar, a tentative formula had been worked out, say sources. The Congress is expected to get nearly twice as many seats as the NCP in Maharashtra. Both parties have kept a five-seat margin to accommodate their allies. This formula is based on the 1999 election results, whereby the NCP performed very well in south Maharashtra and reasonably well in Konkan. Compared to the NCP , the Congress did well in Vidarbha and Mumbai.
Another idea being actively discussed is regional seat adjustment—the Congress giving two seats in Vidarbha to the NCP in return for two seats in western Maharashtra. But it raises the question of the transferability of votes. Simple arithmetic then says Congress-NCP should sweep the polls with their combined voteshare, but it has not factored in the anti-incumbency factor.
In UP, the bonhomie between the BSP and Congress is palpable. The hug between Mayawati and Sonia at the former's birthday last week may have been meant for media consumption alone. But the joint display of Congress and BSP flags at several venues during Sonia's roadshow in western UP is being seen as an indication of public approval for the proposed tie-up.
In terms of adjustments, the BSP has adopted a tough bargaining position, pointing out that the Congress isn't entitled to more than 18 seats. It won nine seats in 1999 and did better than the BSP only in another nine. The BSP , which came first or second in 32 seats, will have to be accommodated in states other than UP as well. Off the record, Congressmen say they would be satisfied with 30 seats in UP, some of which they may well have to yield to allies (the Congress is still hopeful of winning over the RLD and RKP).
In Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand (25 seats), the party will depend heavily on allies. Talks are on with JMM, which offers some hope in Jharkhand. But in Chhattisgarh, if NCP leader V.C. Shukla plays the spoiler by going with the BJP, even a Congress-BSP combine will find it tough.
In the Northeast, however, the Congress doesn't seem to have any scope for friendships. The NCP's Purno Sangma has declared he will forge a front to battle the party. In Orissa, the Congress is seeking friends in both the Gondwana Party and splinter groups of the BJD to offer a tough fight. In J&K, it may open its account in alliance with Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, while in Kerala, it is already a UDF partner. In AP, it's bargaining hard with Telangana Rashtriya Samiti.
The party aims to have alliances in place by end-January; the informal four-man team of Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, Ahmed Patel and Arjun Singh set up to negotiate alliances will have to be more nimble-footed over the next fortnight.
Bhavdeep Kang with S. Anand