Amid growing speculation that the Lok Sabha election will, on May 23, throw up a severely fractured mandate, the Congress party has begun its overtures to heads of state parties that are presently not aligned to any of the two coalitions – the BJP’s NDA and the Congress-led UPA – battling for the seat of power at Raisina Hill. And, from the Congress party’s side, everything is on the negotiations table, including the offer to support a compromise candidate from among the regional satraps for the prime ministerial chair.
The grapevine in New Delhi has, for some months now, been abuzz with rumours that the Congress party could shed its obstinate demand for the Prime Minister’s post if a situation emerges post-May 23 wherein it is in a position to unseat the incumbent NDA regime of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. On Wednesday evening, with one last phase of polling left and exactly a week to go before the election result, the party allowed the rumour to take a life of its own when senior party leader Ghulam Nabi Azad said: “We are not going to make it an issue that we (Congress) will not let any other (leader) to become the PM, if it is not offered to us (Congress).”
The politically significant statement from Azad, sources said, had the backing of party president Rahul Gandhi and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi. A senior party functionary told Outlook, “Azad is among the key leaders that Sonia ji has always entrusted with talking to existing and potential alliance partners. He has an excellent rapport with heads of various regional parties and has a long record of alliance-talks… he wouldn’t have just declared that the PM’s chair is up for grabs if he hadn’t got clearance from the very top.”
That the party leader emphasised on Azad being trusted by Sonia Gandhi for alliance talks is in itself a matter of interest. Congress sources say that in the likely scenario that non-aligned state parties like Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, K Chandrasekhar Rao’s TRS, YS Jagan Reddy’s YSR Congress and Naveen Patnaik’s BJD or the formidable grand alliance of Mayawati’s BSP, Akhilesh Yadav’s SP and Ajit Singh’s RLD corner a lion’s share of seats in their respective states, it would be Sonia and not her son, Rahul, who will spearhead negotiations for a post-poll alliance.
The Congress is hopeful of getting the support of the SP-BSP-RLD alliance as well as the Trinamool Congress as these parties have repeatedly stressed on the need to oust Modi. Sonia shares excellent personal terms with Akhilesh, Ajit Singh, Mamata and even the hard-to-please Mayawati, something that Rahul can’t boast of.
Mamata is often dismissive of Rahul, who she has called a “child” during media interactions, while Mayawati believes that the Congress president doesn’t match up to her political stature. But, equations with Sonia are different. The Trinamool chief has always stressed on her “personal terms” and “respect for” Sonia while the UPA chairperson’s chemistry with Mayawati had gained much public attention when, at the swearing-in ceremony of Karnataka chief minister HD Kumaraswamy last year, the two hugged, held hands on stage and waved cheerfully at the guffawing crowd. During the Lok Sabha poll campaign, Mayawati had publicly urged her supporters from the BSP to vote for Sonia in Rae Bareli.
Congress sources say that though Sonia had been missing from the campaign trail for much of the election season, barring the odd public rally in her constituency of Rae Bareli, the matriarch of the party’s first family spent a better part of the past month reaching out to potential alliance partners. The message to Mamata and Mayawati – both mercurial satraps with aspirations of sitting on the PM’s chair are predicted to win big in Bengal and UP – was that “the party would not thrust their PM candidate (read Rahul Gandhi) on them” and that “due respect will be given to them during government formation talks”, sources said.
A senior Congress leader also pointed at Sonia’s deft handling of the alliance talks in 2004 when she stitched together the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and got the then formidable Left Front as well as the SP and BSP to extend outside support to the Manmohan Singh-led government. “Her word still carries a lot of weight with leaders of political parties who are not our allies… if she personally reaches out to any leader, she cannot be ignored,” the leader said.
It is learnt that the UPA chairperson has already told Azad and other party veterans like Ahmed Patel, A. K. Antony and Kamal Nath to stay in touch with the regional party chieftains while she herself will be monitoring the talks but also personally reach out to Mamata, Mayawati and the father-son duo of Mulayam Singh and Akhilesh if predictions of a hung verdict with a substantial share of seats for the state parties actually come true.
A meeting of leaders of all parties currently within the UPA fold – NCP chief Sharad Pawar, RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav, JMM’s Hemant Soren, H. D. Deve Gowda and his son Kumaraswamy from the JD (S) and DMK’s M. K. Stalin – and willing allies from among the non-UPA constituents has also not been ruled out for May 24 at Sonia’s 10, Janpath residence in New Delhi.
Although Congress allies like Gowda, Stalin, Tejashwi and RLSP chief Upendra Kushwaha have publicly endorsed Rahul for prime ministership, Sonia is aware that these assertions of support may be futile if the UPA, as is largely expected, falls significantly short of a majority and must need the support of non-aligned state parties to keep the BJP out of power.
Several other permutations and combinations are being explored, Congress sources say, keeping in mind different scenarios that include “the Congress crossing 120 seats on its own, putting forward names of non-Congress leaders from within the UPA for the PM’s post, extending support to a non-UPA PM nominee, etc.”.
Of course, all this would be for nought if the results show a comfortable victory for BJP. But, if it doesn’t, the machinations for government formation are expected to get very intriguing. And this is just the Congress party’s side of the story. Modi and BJP president Amit Shah wouldn’t be sitting idle either post-May 19 when the last vote for the final phase of polling is cast.