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Why is Dr Singh smiling?

By Sheela Bhatt
Last updated on: May 14, 2009 13:51 IST
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On Wednesday, when the torturously long five-phase election finally concluded, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was absolutely confident of forming a Congress-led government once again. And if you listen to one of his senior colleagues in the Prime Minister's Office, he is searching for a suitable finance minister and home minister in the next Cabinet.

Another colleague of the prime minister told that on Wednesday morning Dr Singh was "beaming" when he received his staff.

One is not sure if this piece of information is part of the posturing by the Congress to present a smiling face as the confusing and complex election process is about to reach its climax on May 16.

However, on-the-record and off-the-record conversations with Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party leaders suggest that after the first phase of the election the general mood of urban voters shifted towards the mainstream political parties.

On Wednesday, some eight exit polls were released of which at least six showed the Congress in the lead position. All of them showed the Congress and BJP combine will get more than 272 seats in the new Lok Sabha. If this proves correct on May 16, then it is more likely that Communist Party of India-Marxist General Secretary Prakash Karat will prefer an honourable place on the Opposition benches than cobble together some rickety government led by a regional party.

In the 2004 election, the mainstream parties got 57 per cent of the votes and the regional parties got 43 percent. In the 2009 election some 36 regional parties gave a direct challenge to the Congress and BJP in most states.

The election was announced on March 2, but Dr Singh came into his element only after Sonia Gandhi declared him the Congress party's prime ministerial candidate on March 24, on the eve of the release of the party's poll manifesto. Only then did Dr Singh take on BJP prime ministerial candidate L K Advani. Not only his backroom boys in the Prime Minister's Office but even party members say that for the Congress Dr Singh has been one of the favourable factors in some parts of urban India.

On Wednesday, as the exit polls poured in, two senior Congress leaders, both members of the core group that forms the party's strategy, offered the major reasons behind their hope for re-capturing power.

The Congress thinks the BJP, under L K Advani's leadership, failed to project itself as a better alternative to the Congress. Their contention is that Atal Bihari Vajpayee's absence has proved to be an advantage for the Congress. Vajpayee presented a moderate face of the BJP that took away some floating voters who would prefer a 'centrist' BJP.

Also, in the post-election scenario, parties with some 100 seats in the Lok Sabha, which includes Lalu Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Left parties, are never going to support the BJP.

The Congress leaders argued that some 268 constituencies across India have 20 percent or more Muslim voters and if the BJP doesn't become a 'centrist' party in the political and cultural sense, it will be "shrunk, inconsequential or absent" in more than 150 Lok Sabha seats.

Two, the Congress thinks the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the decision to waive farmer's loans helped them contain visible discontent in rural areas.

Three, some of the issues raised by the BJP, the anti-Congress regional parties and the Left parties have been taken by the people as "mere rhetoric" or a "political stunt" to win votes. The issue of hidden money in Swiss bank accounts did give the Congress jitters, but they discovered that since the BJP took it up quite late, just before the election in fact, they could counter attack.

These Congress leaders claim that in spite of Rahul Gandhi's silly mistakes during his press conference in New Delhi last week traditional Congress families found him a transparent leader. To some extent he has been able to create a "comfort" factor among youth voters.

On Wednesday afternoon the Congress's media committee met under Janardhan Dwivedi's leadership to discuss the party strategy for the week starting May 16. Some 30 speakers have been shortlisted who will hop from television studio to studio with the above brief.

The Congress thinks that even if the BJP turns out to be the single largest party defying predictions by many exit polls, it will have many more constraints than the Congress in stitching together a majority.

The Congress wanted the election results to go one way in Tamil Nadu, but the exit polls show a divided verdict between the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Anna DMK. This is the most worrying factor for the Congress.

It seems the DMK may not face a complete rout because actor Vijayakanth's party is playing spoilsport. As predicted often, the Congress was all set to go with the AIADMK by withdrawing support to the DMK in the state assembly. In turn, the AIDMK would have lent support to the Congress in New Delhi. Now, exit polls show the verdict will be divided in UP, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

In other words, this is quite dangerous for the polity because there will be more and more scandalous alliances, use of money power to buy favours and abuse of power to patch up with tainted leaders. The divided votes in AP, Tamil Nadu and UP won't allow Sonia Gandhi and Dr Singh a smooth passage to power.

Equally, it will worry L K Advani if the assembly election results in Orissa give a clear verdict in Naveen Patnaik's favour. If Patnaik is not dependent on the BJP to return to power in the state, then it will be a huge strategic setback to the BJP in New Delhi.

Sonia Gandhi and Dr Singh place the highest importance to Tamil Nadu and the Left parties. External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee has been assigned the task of handling negotiations with the AIADMK's J Jayalalithaa, while the BJP has assigned Narendra Modi the task of cajoling her to cross over to its side.

One of the most interesting comments was made by the CPI-M's Prakash Karat on Wednesday evening to senior journalist Nirmal Pathak of Amar Ujala. Karat told Nirmal that if the Congress gets fewer seats than what they hold in the current Lok Sabha, then they have 'no moral right' to form a government.

Does it mean that if the Congress gets more than the 153 seats it currently holds, then it acquires legitimacy to form a government?

At various points in the interview Karat said the Left is ready to sit in the Opposition.

At the end of the polling and after the release of exit polls the picture remains unclear.

Cho Ramaswamy thinks President Pratibha Patil will not play a fair game. Some Congressmen are taking for granted that she will favour the Congress. Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Mayawati and the Samajwadi Party fear the Congress party will engineer defections to form the government.

Another signal the Congress gave quite clearly is that even if it fails to muster a majority, it will not under any situation support Sharad Pawar to become prime minister. Pawar has cordial political links with the Left parties, Chiranjeevi, Jayalalithaa and Patnaik, but once the exit polls started pouring in, Pawar's daughter Supriya Sule was submissive in emphasising the Nationalist Congress Party's links with the Congress and the UPA.

In a few months Maharashtra will go in for an assembly election and the Congress can under no circumstances allow Pawar to lead the Third Front, says a Congress minister. He adds, "We can't afford to not have a big state like Maharashtra with us when already we don't have political space or power in UP and Bihar."

For the same reason, the Congress will not support Mayawati even if it fails to claim power. On Wednesday, a senior Congress leader argued that if the BJP doesn't find enough allies it may rush to support Mayawati because the BSP and BJP fear defections in Uttar Pradesh. Many experts and leaders are drawing a dreadful scenario devoid of any morals.

Sudheendra Kukarni, columnist and Advani's media strategist, dismisses the exit polls that claim the Congress has a better chance of forming the next government.

He told, "In 2004 all the exit polls were proved incorrect. In the last five years there is nothing in the UPA's performance to enthuse voters to bring them back to power. We could see the undercurrent for a change. We have run a positive campaign giving us confidence that the BJP is going to be the single largest party and the NDA will be the largest pre-poll alliance."

The only thing that looks clear is that Indians look restless, very restless.

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Sheela Bhatt