The election verdict has surprised many parties, including the Congress. Till the ballot boxes were opened, the party managers had kept their fingers crossed and a sense of uncertainty gripped everyone. More than anything else, this suspense had led Congress President Sonia Gandhi to make a phone call to LJP’s Ram Vilas Paswan, an estranged ally, to express her concern over a minor fire that broke out at his residence. Similarly, her political heir, Rahul Gandhi, also wooed the Left parties and heaped praise on opponents like Chandrababu Naidu, the former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister. He did not stop here. The young Gandhi also dubbed Congress rivals like the Janata Dal (United) and the AIADMK as “like-minded”. His sister, Priyanka Gandhi, also publicly stated that the results would be “touch and go”.
Numerically, the Congress did not reach the halfway mark. Neither did it manage to bag a majority in the Lok Sabha. But what it did manage was politically significant: it secured a mandate to govern the country. Now, it needs to shun politicians like the RJD’s Lalu Prasad and the SP’s Mulayam Singh. It also needs to slam the door on powerbrokers like Amar Singh. It also means keeping out megalomaniacs like BSP chief Mayawati.
Today, many of the Congress’ estranged partners are bending over backwards to get on to its bandwagon. Rather, they are willing to crawl. Not so long ago, in 2004, they had extracted their pound of flesh. Now they are offering unconditional support.
The Congress is listening. But that’s saying very little and indicating even less. The potential allies are on tenterhooks wondering whether they would be called on board or not. The Congress leadership, on its part, is weighing its options. There are no ready answers or ethical choices. It is a numbers game and all about head count. The good thing is that, unlike in 2004, in 2009 the Congress can call the shots, crack the whip and shake off those allies who place power above governance. However, one cannot undermine the compulsions of the Congress because it does not have the numbers in either of the two Houses. And for this, it need allies.
Recently, the Congress Working Committee deliberated on its pre-poll allies versus coalition partners of the UPA: those who fought a risky battle with the Congress against those who left it midstream. One section feels that it should go it alone and build the party in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. But no matter what its political considerations are (many of them are valid), the Congress must not include undesirable elements in the government.
On this issue, the Congress cannot afford a flip-flop, numbers cannot guide who should be in and who out of the Cabinet. The Congress cannot turn a deaf ear to the call of the people. It cannot overlook the fact that the Sonia Gandhi-Rahul Gandhi-Manmohan Singh troika was voted primarily for their honesty, integrity and support for clean politics. The Congress got the numbers because the people want to see new faces within the government who represent similar values. It is a tough call but one that the Congress is well equipped to handle.
The Congress would do well to think beyond merely putting together a government that works and delivers. If that is the criteria, then the Railway Ministry under Lalu Prasad made profits but look at what happened to his party, the RJD. It dipped from its double-digit tally to only four MPs. Therefore, while the Congress can happily flirt with allies, it needs to be doubly cautious while promising Cabinet berths to them. It needs to be sensitive to the wish of the voters: keep the rogues out.