As night fell after the stunning one-vote defeat of the Vajpayee government, there was no sign that an alternative would be born at dawn.
Amid the sweets, dancing on the streets of party workers and the queue of cars that jammed Janpath, the Congress kept its allies as well as opponents guessing by simply authorising Sonia Gandhi to lead a minority government with outside support.
The Congress Working Committee met at the Akbar Road headquarters six hours after Mayavati led the Vajpayee government on a merry dance to disaster in one of the most sensational turnarounds in Parliament?s history. Last night, she had declared she would abstain. This noon, she and her four colleagues voted against the trust motion along with Saifuddin Soz, who strayed from the National Conference.
Thirteen months of uncertainty ended with promise of more. The Congress betrayed its discomfiture at the nature of the disparate forces at its disposal by saying it would not stake claim, but would instead await the President?s call.
The only concession it made to certainty was a promise to take a quick decision on the budget. The dominant view at the CWC was to pass Yashwant Sinha?s budget. Sonia Gandhi has formed a committee to decide the budget?s fate.
The President is certain to ask for letters of support from the allies before allowing the Congress to form a government. Outgoing Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee, who drove to Rashtrapati Bhavan with L.K. Advani to submit his resignation, demanded that the President should seek written commitment from all partners, as had been done when he formed the government.
The two leaders felt the President should also ensure that the total number in the coalition ranks should be more than 270.
Fuming at the volte face by the BSP and Soz, the BJP said the government?s effective strength was also 270, including the vote of Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi. It also raised doubts about the Congress? ability to form an alternative.
Although the result today showed 269 for and 270 against the trust motion, three votes, which would have gone in favour of the Opposition, were not cast. A Rashtriya Janata Dal MP is abroad for treatment, a CPI woman member stayed away for mysterious reasons and Jayalalitha?s trusted ADMK lieutenant S.R. Muthiah made the cardinal mistake of not finding out if his electronically-cast vote had registered.
But even a majority of 273 to 269 is far too slender for the Congress to feel confident. After fooling the BJP, Mayavati has already started talking about voting against the next government. The Tamil Maanila Congress has declared it would oppose any formation that includes the ADMK. And, Subramanian Swamy, one of the architects of Vajpayee?s fall, signalled his interest in the finance minister?s job which he was denied by the BJP.
It?s pay-off time for the Congress.
What it was distributing instead were rasgullas from Bengali Sweet House, served for the first time to the CWC since Sonia Gandhi took over. But the meeting had to face up to the bitter prospect of having to resolve the contradiction between avoiding snap polls and forming a government that will be intrinsically unstable.
??We have to be extremely careful about the composition of a new government. We must remember that the margin was one in the Lok Sabha today,?? a CWC member said.
Signalling that the Congress was ready for reconciliation, the committee authorised Sonia Gandhi to head the government, but, at the same time, it said the party should be ready to share power with the Samajwadi Party and the ADMK. It was clear that the Congress had yet to chalk out the contours of an alternative.
Even if the Congress does draw up a blueprint, there is no word from Sonia Gandhi on whether she is willing to accept the Prime Minister?s job. ??The whole party and our allies want her to lead the nation but a lot will depend on her,?? a CWC member said. ??If she does not accept it, we will force her to do so,?? added another leader.
Leader of the Opposition Sharad Pawar and spokesman Arjun Singh said she will be the obvious choice for Prime Minister. ??It is her legitimate and natural right,?? Pawar said.
The Congress is in no hurryto work out the composition of an alternative as it wants all non-BJP groups to agree to its terms. ??We will not make the first move. First, let the third force leaders hammer out some ground rules,?? an AICC functionary said.
Though nothing has been decided yet, the presence of the Samajwadi Party and the BSP would be a problem for the Congress. Its only hope lies in orchestrating a dismantling game in Kalyan Singh?s backyard in Lucknow.
The Congress may have to bring Mulayam Singh and Mayavati to the negotiating table to strike a deal on Uttar Pradesh. But there was no indication from either Mulayam Singh or Mayavati on how they plan to get along in the same coalition.
It will be easy for the Left to overcome the discordant note being struck by two smaller partners like Forward Bloc and the RSP which do not want to extend support to a Congress-led government. The Left has already offered support and would not interfere in government formation.
The Congress, along with a section of the Left, is floating an idea where Sonia Gandhi forms a small Cabinet with Congress ministers.The decision to expand the ministry can be taken after a vote of confidence.
But the Congress? clashes with the CPI and CPM may begin once it tries to push through its liberal economic agenda. Sonia Gandhi will meet Jyoti Basu who arrived in the capital today.