It's gambling! The 2009 election resembles the game of dice, madam," said a senior Congress leader in charge of two important states while talking to rediff.com as he watched Bharatiya Janata Party leader Varun Gandhi's communal speech on television.
The Congressman, an influential leader working out of his office in the party headquarters at 24, Akbar Road, in New Delhi, says: "Our top leadership knows there are two elections. One is by the people of India; another election and selection process to form the government will be after the results. Nobody can say with certainty who will win, why and how many seats. I say it's a gamble."
He adds, "The Congress has computerised the process of selecting candidates. Five different opinions are given to the Congress president (Sonia Gandhi) before she selects the candidates. In the first round, she normally discusses the most common name of the proposed candidate from the opinions submitted to her. Most times she remembers the party's internal squabbles in the constituency also. She once pointed out that a lady mentioned in the short list is the girlfriend of a Congressman, and had no other qualification. It is difficult to fool Sonia Gandhi."
One of the opinions given to Sonia is prepared by her team comprising Ahmed Patel, Motilal Vora and others. The Congress president also gets a secret survey done before allotting the tickets. These days there is far greater professionalism than before in the ticket distribution process of political parties.
The aforementioned Congressman insists that in spite of many odds, the Congress finds that this time the real fight is between it and the Third Front.
Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar has also said that one cannot ignore the Third Front. Since the BJP has not got its act together so far, the so-called Third Front is filling the gap in public perception as a challenger to the Congress, with the help of the media.
These days Congressmen in New Delhi can be heard parroting, "The Congress has an edge. The party will increase its tally. Any loss in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Haryana will be balanced by gains in Kerala, West Bengal and Rajasthan."
The BJP's internal squabble and absence of any issue in public domain have given them reason to believe that the Congress is poised to emerge as the single largest party. In New Delhi, it is the season for politicians to boast about their prospects, hype their advantages and indulge in day-dreaming.
Interestingly, at the end of the current exercise of stitching together regional alliances, the Congress is likely to contest not more than 350 seats, which will include some 73 seats in Uttar Pradesh if the alliance with Samajwadi Party fails to come through.
The Third Front will be contesting less than 300 seats while the Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati claims that her party will contest all the 543 seats. However, Mayawati's claim can be shrugged off as a joke since, in many seats, she will not even find candidates.
For instance in the last Gujarat assembly election, the NCP got 10 seats from the Congress in a seat-sharing formula but they could not find suitable candidates. So the Congress even "loaned" them five candidates.
Most parties are still in the process of finalising their alliances and have not declared their candidates, but this is the best time to be in New Delhi if you enjoy politics.Delicious talk about who will win, why, where and how echoes in party offices.
Leaders of various political parties claim that this time the imponderables are higher due to the delimitation exercise that has changed the demography of many constituencies all over India. Untill results day the real impact on the fortunes of political parties will not be known, they say. Earlier, the Scheduled Castes had 79 reserved seats; now the number has gone up to 84. Similarly, the Scheduled Tribes, who had 41 seats, have 47 after delimitation. The redrawing of the electoral map has affected the non-reserved seats as well, and only after the results are out will we know the actual impact of the process.
A Congress leader says, "We think the print and TV media are one of the most unpredictable forces in the elections. Even if you try to influence them when the momentum over some controversy picks up, it becomes unstoppable these days. They can pick up one issue, go for the kill, and mar the chances of parties."
However, both the Congress and BJP have a well-oiled damage-control machinery when the media turns into an adversary.
Rediff.com got some gyan from Communist Party of India general secretary Ardhendu Bhushan Bardhan who explained how the Third Front can come to power in New Delhi.
Ajoy Bhuvan, the CPI headquarters in New Delhi where Bardhan stays as well, wears a deserted look at 6 pm. Bardhan, 82, sits in his colourless room on an armchair. Against the backdrop of Lenin's small bust on the side table and Che Guevara's poster on the dull walls, Bardhan discusses Mayawati and Sharad Pawar.
His legs are swollen with excess water, something quite common in old age. He looks weak, but his memory is absolutely sharp and his wit is in place. Bardhan hails from Nagpur, so he seems biased towards Maharashtrian Shard Pawar but the comrade won't admit it, frankly.
He tells rediff.com, "Third Front leaders have already discussed who should be their prime ministerial candidate, but we won't declare anyone now."
The Third Front is inspired by the Left parties and is being loosely put together before the public eye by leaders like former prime minister H D Deve Gowda because, as the Congress leader said, the 2009 election is a pure gamble. (By the way, Gowda's astrologer has once again predicted that his stars indicate that he will be prime minister again).
However, since nobody is sure about what is going to happen after the election and what kind of deal will have to be struck with whom, the Third Front has not put up any official name. This gives the constituents manouevrability to strike deals as they want. It seems more or less that the Third Front is an exercise undertaken to embark on an advantageous bargain with the Congress as soon as the results come in. If they gain better than expected, united they will profit, goes the logic.
The Left bloc is made up of several parties, among which CPI and the Communist Party of India-Marxist are the major ones. The CPM had won 44 seats in the 2004 polls while the CPI won 10.
Now read what Bardhan, who is privy to all the high-level talk that helped the Telugu Desam Party, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Left parties, Janata Dal-Secular and other small leaders to come together on one platform, says.
According to him, it is a matter of strategy for Mayawati (BSP), Naveen Patnaik (Biju Janata Dal) and Sharad Pawar (NCP) to not join in now. He says their bloc's first agenda is to get more seats overall than the Congress.
He admits that the Left parties will not do as well as in 2004, but believes they will not be driven out completely by voters either. His contention is that if the combined strength of the seats of all Left parties and BSP reaches around 80, the Congress cannot have its say in the next government.
Bardhan is weaving his dream of power in the next government on this premise.
The CPI general secretary says the Left parties are present not only in West Bengal and Kerala but also in Tripura, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. On an optimistic note, he gives around 40-45 seats to the Left, including CPI and CPM. Currently, they have 61 seats.
Secondly, Bardhan says if the Congress and Samajwadi Party do not forge an alliance in UP, Mayawati cannot be stopped from winning around 45-50 seats out of the state's 80. Without an alliance with the SP, the Congress's rout in UP is certain, he says.
For the sake of argument, he says Jayalalithaa will get not less than 15 seats out of 39 in Tamil Nadu. In Andhra Pradesh, there is no way anybody can give less than 15 seats out of 42 to the TDP. The Telangana Rashtra Samiti will also get four-five seats while Gowda's JD-S is also putting in its best effort to win a respectable number seats after losing power in the Karnataka assembly elections.
In short, Bardhan says the Left -Mayawati combine will lend meat to the Third Front's final tally and some seven other parties, and the BJD and NCP will eventually push the total to touch somewhere near or more than the Congress's, which will make them an attractive force that can't be ignored.
Precisely because of this one possible scenario, Congressmen are taking note of the Third Front. In case the tally of the anti-BJP and anti-Congress parties is comparable to the Congress's, the leadership issue can slip out of the latter's hands.
In the unlikely scenario that the Third Front emerges as the largest bloc, the Congress will have to indulge in a nerve-wracking exercise to break the parties and stitch together new alliances, and offer key portfolios to leaders it otherwise detests.
Obviously, a Third Front government will be weak as it will need the Congress's support, but if the Left-led manipulation of thje Third Front does not break quickly after the elections the Congress will have to enter into expensive tradeoffs to form the government, which will make the new government weaker.
The key issues will be foreign policy and economic policy.
Already, the Third Front is preparing a joint 'appeal' instead of a joint programme before the election. All the current constituents of the Third Front are against the Indo-US nuclear deal.
If the BJP and Congress's combined tally does not reach 273 seats -- majority mark in the Lok Sabha -- the momentum will be with the Third Front, says Bardhan, adding that if the two parties together fall under the 273 mark, a majority of the members of the 15th Lok Sabha will be non-BJP and non-Congress. That would be considered the people's verdict.
Mayawati is the most crucial factor in the Third Front's game plan as she is considered capable of bringing in numbers to take on Congress's plans post-election. Within the Third Front, Mayawati's ambition will be first challenged by Pawar. It will be quite an opportunistic alliance because Pawar, who has a right-wing vision of development politics, has nothing in common with the Left.
Asked how they would change Pawar's views on economy and foreign policy, which are identical to Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh's, Bardhan said: "This is not true. In the UPA committee on Indo-US nuclear deal, Pawar opposed Dr Singh's politics on the deal. But he never wanted to risk the government by breaking ties with Left parties."
In case the Congress gets only 130-140 seats and presuming that the BJP is restricted to 110 seats, why would the 293 non-Congress and non-BJP members of the new Lok Sabha not have the wisdom to extract maximum bargain for themselves wherever they stand on the political spectrum, asks Bardhan.
At this rate, it's sad to note that our voting itself looks like one kind of gamble. Nothing more, nothing less.