With the twin beliefs that it has governed India well and that the BJP is not a serious threat, the Congress is likely to push two of its prominent regional allies to let it contest more seats in the 15th Lok Sabha elections.
It is a sign of growing self-confidence that India’s grand old party will bargain hard this time with Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar and M. Karunanidhi’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).
A timid Congress leadership believes the party gave away too much to these parties as part of the seat-sharing arrangement in 2004. The Congress contested only four — and won three — of 40 seats in Bihar and won all 10 it contested, of 39 seats in Tamil Nadu.
“We would like these two parties to see reason and concede what is due to the Congress,” said a senior functionary of the party who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the forthcoming talks.
The demand for a larger share of the seats this time was first expressed by party members during the Congress’s January 29 working committee meeting in Delhi.
Leaders argued that its allies had gained a positive aura around themselves “under the leadership of PM Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi”.
The RJD, with its 24 MPs, is the second-largest constituent of the UPA; the DMK with 16 MPs is the third-largest.
“In 2004, we had to make a lot of concessions to defeat the BJP,” a Congress leader said. “Now the threat of the BJP is not really there.”
To increase its bargaining power, the Congress has roped in Dalit leader and Union Steel Minister Ramvilas Paswan. With Paswan — who shares the grievance of few seats — the party hopes to strike a collective bargain with Lalu.
“The four seats we contested as part of the alliance in 2004 plus the 11 seats that the RJD or the LJP could not win the last time should come to us,” said Anil Sharma, president of the Bihar Congress. “The social equation in these seats is such that only a Congress candidate can put up a strong contest.”
Lalu, conscious that his political magic is waning, sounds receptive. His fellow RJD man and Union Minister for Rural Development Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, is not as easy. “The UPA together won 29 of the 40 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar in 2004,” said Singh. “There remain only 11 seats; the alliance partners can sit and discuss (this).”
In Tamil Nadu, the Congress could make a pitch for about 15-16 seats. “It is too early yet,” said Congress Rajya Sabha MP Jayanti Natarajan. “The high command will take an appropriate decision at an appropriate time.”
The Congress has not forgotten the days in 1991 when it contested 26 of 39 seats as part of an alliance with the DMK’s arch rival, the All India Anna DMK (AIADMK). The Congress contested two-thirds of Lok Sabha seats and the AIADMK a similar per cent of assembly seats.
A highly placed Congress source said AIADMK leader J. Jayalalitha has offered the same formula for 2009. But the Congress is aware that last-minute turnarounds don’t wash well with an increasingly savvy electorate. For now, it’s the DMK.