This week may prove a game-changer for the Congress.
In pursuit of power, the Congress' position has plummeted steeply as the Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Pattali Makkal Katchi have dumped the party by refusing to forge pre-poll alliances.
The simple message of this setback for the Congressmen is that these regional parties don't see Congress' dominant presence at the grassroot level in the respective states.
On Friday, Dr Anbumani Ramadoss openly said he conducted a referendum amongst the grassroot workers of the PMK in Tamil Nadu. The question asked was if they should go with the Congress in the ensuing polls. He said while more than 2,400 votes were against the Congress, only less than 200 voted in favour.
Any amount of defence by Congress cannot erase the seriousness of this kind of rejection by regional parties just before the election.
The net result of this perception of Lalu, Mulayam and Dr Ramadoss is that the Congress's presence has shrunk to 384 out of the 543 seats before poll campaign could really begin as in UP (80 seats), Bihar (40) and Tamil Nadu (39).
When the Congress's negotiations with the UPA allies like Lalu Yadav failed, Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi have reportedly argued that the Congress would rebuild the party in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. In response, Lalu retorted, "When fire spreads one doesn't start digging well. It should have been done before."
As everyone knows that the mega race is between the BJP and the Congress to emerge as the single largest party after the polls. The Third front wants to make sure that these two do not get more than 250 seats so that their game can begin.
The BJP does not see the war between the Congress and the Third Front as zero-sum game. The sums of gains and loses will not be equal for the BJP. Even though most regional parties in the Third front and those who are with the Congress are "secular" or are pretending to be secular still, the BJP can gain by default if it can beat the Congress in a bilateral fight.
The foremost reason for gaining psychological advantage is because the Congress's allies, who have parted ways, now want a "UPA within UPA". Regional parties -- north and south -- are targeting Mayawati also. They calculate that if BSP emerges as the third largest party after Congress and BJP, it has to be countered by forming a block outside the latter's fronts. Lalu, Mulayam and Paswan will pose as the united force against Mayawati on the bargain table after the election.
Importantly, after the elections if they have to deal with the Congress once again they want the issue of prime ministership wide open.
On March 24, at the function to publish the Congress manifesto when Sonia Gandhi, with all the force in her command, recommended Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as the party's PM candidate it made impact only within the Congress.
She was unsuccessfully trying to close the issue. A senior NCP leader from rural Maharashtra told rediff.com, "Sharad Pawar was asking for the national alliance of parties within the UPA for this election, but the Congress disagreed because they think that in pre-poll alliance Soniaji's choice of Dr Singh will be challenged if the numbers of seats won by non-Congress allies are formidable after election."
If the Congress suffers setback of any kind in the election, then one of the most important factors will be the decision of the Congress Working Committee of January 29, 2009 when the Congress ruled out any pre-poll alliance at national level amongst the UPA allies.
AICC general secretary Janardhan Dwivedi told reporters after meeting that, "We do not have an alliance at the national level. We have alliance partners and seat adjustments at the state level..."
The level of confidence or over-confidence of the Congress was such before the real election fever started that he said, "The alliance is basically a game of numbers. It depends on who gets how many seats. This will be clear only after the elections."
"Hypothetically speaking if the Congress gets absolute majority, the situation will be different," he added.
Now, it is clear that in the last five years, the Congress has not cultivated sturdy political relationship for enduring alliances or may be the regional parties are too greedy to milk the Congress to death. For whatever reason, the Congress is getting isolated amongst even secular parties. And, those who are still, with the Congress, the less said the better about them.
Sharad Pawar and Mamata Banerjeee are such allies that chances of their friendship killing them are higher than their enemies' attacks.
If you read what all Mulayam and Lalu Yadav are saying in the last three days, you can smell the anti-Congressism reminding some of the era of Ram Manohar Lohia, who took on Nehru.
If the last election was marked by the BJP versus others, in this election mighty regional parties and Left block are sharpening their target against the Congress. In view of this, the BJP is foolish to evoke the negative issue of Hindutva.
By default, the anti-Congressism of Left parties, AIADMK, Lalu Yadav and Mulayam will certainly help the BJP. This will be more so because anti-BJP forces are concentrated in fighting regional fights with regional agenda and their attention is not intense on pan-Indian agenda.
Maybe sensing this, the Advani camp is now getting into top gear. New RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has taken over and their machinery is getting into action. The ugly spar between BJP leaders Rajnath Singh and Arun Jaitley has been overshadowed by Varun Gandhi's hate speech. Jaitley, a media-friendly leader, for the first time said certain things are not to be shared with media.
That shows that he has patched up with his party president. A source close to Advani claims that the BJP is not likely to allow Varun Gandhi to travel extensively outside Uttar Pradesh.
The BJP wants to navigate political trajectory of the Varun controversy in and around Pilibhit area from where Varun will contest. But, the visual media has put the issue in the spotlight and the BJP is somewhat confused over it.
The BJP's double-speak over issue is not allowing them to take the limited advantage of Varun without damaging the larger plans of the party.
According to a source close to Advani, the country will see no more verbal attacks on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. It unnecessarily gives him a status of a victim, they argue. As of today, the BJP seems to understand the great game like this: the Third front wants to do well vis-à-vis Congress to eventually force the Congress to give them support to keep BJP out. In 1996, the United Front ruled the nation, why not in 2009? They claim that they are now cohesive and wiser in bargaining for power on strength of their seats. In view of this, the BJP needs to raise the issue of stability and promise of development instead of Hindutva.
Certainly, within party at the top level there are enough numbers of leaders including Advani, Arun Jaitley, Shivraj Chauhan and others who are aware of the negative fallout of a deep saffron propaganda. When youth power is on rise in country who wants jobs and convincing promise of fast development, "hate speeches" are not appropriate instrument to win votes.
A source close to Advani claims, "Desh ka khayal rakhna hai (We should keep country in mind). This sentiment will eventually emerge in country as the voting day comes closer. We think, in UP, Bihar and Jharkhand there will be a "national" sentiment."
Advani camp's hopes are that in the Hindi heartland of India, "Let this old man win so that he can become prime minister like Vajpayee" kind of thinking will click.
The BJP hopes that if Left parties slip below 30 seats and Mayawati gets less than 35 seats, then the momentum of Third Front will not pick up. One logical argument is also forwarded that Mayawati is creeping into actually Left Parties vote-base of the poor in Kerala. This realization may have defused Left parties recent focus on Mayawati.
The BJP is confident that the TDP, AIADMK, Trinamool Congress and even Mayawati are capable of switching sides once the centre of gravity shifts after election.
As one can see there is no UPA existing, the NDA is just an excuse to remain together in pursuit of power and the Third Front is a corner created to strike a bargain after election. So, there are no pre-poll alliances in the real sense. Everybody is fighting everybody else.
Right now, what all the regional leaders are saying is only posturing. Power of posturing will help them to win votes, but after election they need not go back to ask their voters before they enter into opportunistic alliance.
That's why after the Congress's debacle in negotiations with its allies of UPA, BJP leaders think they are very much in the game and considers that war is between the BJP and the Congress, essentially.
A confidante of Advani claimed, "It will be a close-finish."