In a candid admission that stunned the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), party leader Sushma Swaraj said on Wednesday that she was not confident of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) winning a majority in the Lok Sabha elections.
In remarks that were greeted by most of her colleagues in New Delhi and elsewhere with disbelief, Sushma Swaraj told journalists in Bhopal: "I am not sure if the NDA will get a majority."
But she quickly added that if the multi-party NDA emerged as the single largest bloc in the 545-seat house after the April-May elections, it could take power with post-poll alliances.
Sushma Swaraj is in charge of the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, where the party retained power in assembly elections last year and is confident of winning a majority of its 29 Lok Sabha seats.
BJP leaders could not explain what caused Sushma Swaraj's morale denting comments at a time when the Congress-led camp is talking about retaining office while the motley group of parties widely known as the Third Front claim they can outsmart both the Congress and BJP.
Most BJP spokespersons politely declined to comment on Sushma Swaraj's statement.
In New Delhi, when contacted by IANS, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Prakash Javdekar and Siddharthnath Singh gave different reasons to explain why they were not reacting to Sushma Swaraj.
While Naqvi, Prasad and Javdekar insisted that they would not comment because they had not heard Sushma Swaraj speak, Singh differed openly with the party veteran and said the NDA was poised to win the election.
"While I cannot comment on what she said, the NDA is confident of coming to power," he said.
With only a fortnight left for the staggered elections to start, the BJP has already been hit hard by the defection of one of its oldest allies, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in Orissa.
BJP insiders have admitted that BJD's defection was a blow since the alliance had been expected to win most of Orissa's 21 Lok Sabha seats. The latest comment in Bhopal is expected to add to the party's misery.
Sushma Swaraj, a former central minister, also spoke on other issues, including on BJP's jailed Pilibhit candidate Varun Gandhi, saying there was no confusion within the party about him.
Nor was the BJP distancing itself from Varun Gandhi, who is being held under the National Security Act (NSA) for his alleged hate speeches, said the former Delhi chief minister.
Sushma Swaraj said the party disapproved of "hate speeches" but it was against what she described as the discriminatory treatment by the Election Commission.
She said that while the Election Commission allowed "people (with criminal past) like Mukhtar Ansari and Atiq Ahmed" to contest elections, it did not want Gandhi to be fielded. "There should be one yardstick."
Sushma Swaraj conceded that the absence of former prime minister and BJP mascot Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who is not contesting the election because of ill health, was being felt "very much" by the party.