April 29: Manmohan Singh walked into 24 Akbar Road to encounter a row of smiling faces. Smiling back, he asked: “So what’s on the agenda'”
An All-India Congress Committee functionary, also brimming with good humour, pulled his leg: “Doctor sahib is already a minister asking for agenda papers of the meeting.”
They may be smiling all too soon, but before the strategy committee’s meeting, grins of all manners hung on Congress faces after some five years.
But unlike in 1999, this time the party has worked out its positions in various scenarios that could unfold after May 13.
It is not 1999 alone that the Congress wants not to repeat. There was 1997, too, when the party now believes it had made the mistake of staying away from the United Front government. In 1999, of course, it first overplayed its hand — Sonia Gandhi, a relative rookie then, claiming she had the required support to form a government after the Vajpayee regime was pulled down — and then refused to back an alternative led by a third front candidate.
If an opportunity now presents itself, the Congress will join a ministry and insist that other pre- and post-poll partners come on board.
The Congress think tank feels the party should also not be inflexible on leadership position in an alternative government. In public, no Congress leader is willing to acknowledge that there could be a Congress or a “secular” government without Sonia leading it but, privately, no one will deny the possibility. Such a contingency plan, apparently, has been cleared by Sonia herself.
If the party is close to 140 seats on its own, it will pursue the idea of a Sonia-led coalition. If not, it could concede the post to someone else. One school of thought does not rule out the possibility of someone from within the Congress parivar being put up for the Prime Minister’s post.
Premature as these discussions are, the idea has been floated that Mulayam Singh Yadav, a potential, if difficult, ally, could be offered the deputy Prime Minister’s post along with the home portfolio. A Congress leader said the proposal has been broached through a Left party functionary.
Three-way negotiations have begun. One inside the Congress itself. There is a direct line of communication between Sonia and Harkishen Singh Surjeet, the CPM general secretary, on the one hand and Manmohan Singh and the top Left leadership, on the other. Surjeet, in turn, has been holding talks with several current and possible allies who are not part of the NDA.
As for last Tuesday’s strategy session, a Congress leader said: “Everybody was feeling a bit heady. For a change, there were no snide remarks but back-slapping and jokes and even whispered discussions on portfolios.”
He recalled a similar meeting in 1999. And that one ended in disaster.