New Delhi, May 13: In the most dramatic election since Indira Gandhi was driven out of power in 1977, another Gandhi led the nation’s oldest party back to the throne in Delhi after eight years in opposition.
After a day of stunning results with a confounding Congress resurgence in Gujarat setting the tone, Sonia Gandhi left the nation wondering who would be Prime Minister of the new government.
She simply said: “Normally this happens.” It was a reply to a question if the Congress Parliamentary Party leader would become the Prime Minister.
The Congress emerged as the single largest party in Parliament, pushing the BJP to the second slot, and the alliance led by it ended some 30 seats ahead of the rival combine, a conclusion of this election that no exit or opinion poll had predicted.
“Victory and defeat are a part of life, which are to be viewed with equanimity,” outgoing Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said in an address to the nation, capping a day of searing shocks to his party and the National Democratic Alliance he led for six years.
The Indian voter left the NDA — possibly also the Congress alliance — blinking in amazement as the Choice of 2004 unfolded. It would never be known if the voters had surprised even themselves.
On Saturday, the CPP will meet to elect its leader who has traditionally taken the Prime Minister’s chair. Sonia’s choice of words — “normally this happens” — has left open interpretations. These are abnormal times, as this election has proven.
Senior AICC members Manmohan Singh, Arjun Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, Natwar Singh, Ambika Soni, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Ahmed Patel, Motilal Vora and Oscar Fernandes sprang into action to “build up pressure” on Sonia to lead the new government.
The two Singhs, Azad and Patel are establishing contact with the allies to obtain letters of support for a Congress-led government. “They have already begun talking to the allies,” an AICC general secretary said.
Other than the question of when the Prime Minister’s name would be announced, the hottest speculation centred on whether the Left, particularly the CPM, would join the government.
The CPM has emerged as the third largest party in Parliament with a likely tally of over 50 and the Left as a group has more than 60 in a situation where its support is enough for the Congress alliance to form a government.
As in 1996, the CPM has been sucked into a debate over joining the government. It had then decided to stay out because of a conflict of interest between associating with the Congress in Delhi and fighting it in Bengal and Kerala.
Party general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet admitted that the conflict exists even today while at the same time hinting at a way out. “There are state-level contradictions. But there can be a different strategy at the national level,” he said.
The CPM politburo and the central committee will meet between May 15 and 17, where, Surjeet said: “We will clinch the issue once and for all.”
No dilemma assailed the other Congress allies whose leaders called up Sonia to congratulate her. Even Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayavati, with whom efforts to form a pre-poll alliance had come a cropper, conveyed her party’s support to Sonia’s leadership.
If the Congress and its allies accept Mayavati into the combine, Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party could find itself denied a share of power even after an impressive victory in Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP suffered deep humiliation.
Sonia has asked Pranab Mukherjee, who in the twilight of his career scored his first election win, to go into the manifestos of all allied parties to evolve a common minimum agenda for governance.
The CPM could insist on some compromises over economic policy, particularly in reference to divestment of public sector units.
Discussions on portfolios have already started among Congress leaders. If Sonia heads the government, the buzz is that Manmohan will be asked to head the foreign ministry because of the importance of “economic diplomacy”, specifically in relations with the US. On the offchance that Sonia declines the Prime Minister’s post, there have been rumours that her first choice is Manmohan. P. Chidambaram would be a strong claimant to the finance ministry.