As the Congress embarked on the tricky task of government formation, the party?s leadership fell back on the persuasive powers of CPM leaders H.S. Surjeet and Jyoti Basu to convince the Samajwadi Party, the RSP and the Forward Bloc to support a minority government from outside.
The Congress also asked Basu if he would head an alternative coalition government. But he refused. Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sharad Pawar today called on Basu, along with Pranab Mukherjee, and asked him if he would lead a third front government with outside support from the Congress. It was evident the offer had come from Sonia Gandhi herself.
Basu, who had termed an ?historic blunder? the CPM?s decision to ignore an offer to head a coalition three years ago, declined immediately. He said he was too old and his health was failing.
The offer indicates the Congress is keeping all options open. The party believes a minority government headed by Sonia Gandhi is the safest way to keep the disparate anti-BJP flock together.
The Congress will explore the option of heading a coalition only after it receives an invitation from President K.R. Narayanan to form the government and is unable to get its allies to agree to a minority government. Till then, the party plans to maintain a strategic silence as it hopes this will force the potential allies to fall in line.
There is a strong view that the Congress need not get entangled in a messy coalition and should, instead, back an acceptable third front leader as Prime Minister. The first choice for this was Basu.
Sonia Gandhi has begun crucial discussions over telephone. She spoke to Basu, Surjeet, Jayalalitha, Laloo Prasad Yadav and senior party leaders today. Though 10 Janpath insiders admitted the task before her was far from easy, they were confident it would be accomplished.
The Congress said it was waiting for the President?s invitation, after which it would ask friendly parties to draft letters pledging support to a Sonia Gandhi-led government. The party drew comfort from Tamil Nadu chief minister and DMK leader M. Karunanidhi?s assertion today that he would not oppose the next government because he did not want early polls.
Former Prime Minister V.P. Singh, who persuaded National Conference leader Saifuddin Soz to vote against the Vajpayee government, is now in touch with Karunanidhi. The DMK could use this opportunity to patch up with its former third front allies, with which it fell out because it supported Vajpayee?s trust motion.
The Congress camp got another boost when Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh convinced former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar to back a government led by Sonia Gandhi. He had said yesterday he would oppose such a formation.
The Left has said it might be able to turn around the RSP and Forward Bloc, which have reservations about supporting a Congress-led government. Both have already shown signs of a reconciliation.
Surjeet is also confident of getting Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav to agree to back a Congress minority government. But even this afternoon, Mulayam Singh?s confidant Amar Singh insisted his party should have a say in government formation.
Neither the Congress nor the ADMK has divulged the nature of talks between the two parties. The first task before Sonia Gandhi is to iron out a ?functional relationship? with the ADMK, in view of Jayalalitha?s insistence on sharing power and the Tamil Maanila Congress? refusal to back any government that includes her party.
Sonia Gandhi is likely to meet Jayalalitha tomorrow to discuss the revival of an MGR-type alliance, according to which the ADMK will give the Congress unconditional support from outside at the Centre in return for similar backing in Tamil Nadu. The Congress chief also has to win over Mayavati, who does not see eye to eye with Mulayam Singh.
Asked about the composition of the alternative government, Congress leader Arjun Singh said: ?We don?t want to act without the initiative from the President.? He admitted the task of government formation was not easy. ?All I can say is that it will be completed.?
Arjun Singh, Sharad Pawar, Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, K. Karunakaran, Digvijay Singh, Kamal Nath, R.D. Pradhan, P.J. Kurien, Ajit Jogi and Vincent George are part of a close-knit group which is working round-the-clock to muster support for a Sonia Gandhi-led government.
On a day marked by slow and complex negotiations among non-BJP groups, the Congress think-tank was also working overtime on splitting BJP allies like the Samata Party, the Biju Janata Dal and the Trinamul Congress and toppling the Kalyan Singh government in Uttar Pradesh.
The Congress is eyeing the Kalyan Singh regime to accommodate two potential allies, Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party. ?If we manage to dump the Uttar Pradesh government, it will give us more political space. The equations between the BSP and Samajwadi would change and give us some scope for manoeuvering. If one of them heads the next government in Uttar Pradesh, the other can be part of coalition government at the Centre,? a Congress leader said.