In the post-May 23 scenario, the grand old party can have the first mover advantage — a proposition that BJP-NDA cannot match because they have an incumbent prime minister looking for the second term.
BJP's strength is its weakness as the office of prime minister is non-negotiable for all practical purposes. Even in terms of dispensing with key ministerial portfolios like home, defence, railways, surface transport, rural development etc, non-NDA parties will find it more difficult to bag these lucrative posts in BJP-NDA than a non-NDA front. The Congress, at its best, would eye finance and external affairs as it fancies itself as a custodian of India’s foreign policy and knowing a thing or two about managing the economy.
Media criticism of Congress waving a white flag or giving up the battle for 2019 is misplaced and inaccurate. Throughout 2019 general elections campaign, neither Rahul Gandhi nor the Congress even once projected the Congress president as prime ministerial candidate. The talk of Rahul as prime minister came from Tamil Nadu where DMK supremo MK Stalin raised the bogey of Rahul as prime minister after opinion polls from the state showed Congress chief ahead of Narendra Modi in popular ratings.
Elections 2019 have been fought in contrasting style by Modi-led BJP-NDA and the opposition. May 23 is likely to witness three possible scenarios.
A. Modi-led NDA winning by a clear majority.
B. Modi-led NDA falling short of 272 but getting over 230 seats. YSR Congress, TRS, BJD, ADMK and other regional parties will get bargaining chip to extend support to Modi and get ministerial berths.
C. The Congress and non-NDA regional parties win over 300 seats and non-NDA regional parties quickly come together to form a federal front. The Congress will have reasons to be happy to keep Modi out of power.
In other words, Narendra Modi-led BJP has the advantage of emerging as a single largest party and pre-poll alliance formation. BJP’s challenge would be to run a coalition government if its tally is below 180-190 parliamentary seats.
On the other hand, if the Congress comes close to "half of half" (i.e. half of 272 Lok Sabha seats), there will be trouble for Modi-BJP as most regional parties will prefer to bargain with the Congress.
If there is a hung house, both Mayawati and Mamata have a chance of getting support from Stalin, Naveen Patnaik, Akhilesh Yadav, K Chandrashekar Rao, Jagan Mohan Reddy, Tejashwi Yadav and Sonia-Rahul-Priyanka trio. Mamata will, however, face a predicament of leaving Calcutta for Delhi as she has no ready candidate for Writers' Building.
Enter Sonia Gandhi. As per a design, Sonia kept a low profile during alliance negotiations and election campaign. Both as a mother and former AICC chief, she did not want to overshadow Rahul or veto his political instincts. But once electioneering ends on Sunday, Sonia will act swiftly.
She is aware that non-NDA regional parties need an anchor. Someone in the mould of Jai Prakash Narain (1977) or VP Singh, Harkishan Singh Surjeet (1996, 2004) to bring egoist, temperamental regional satraps together. Sonia alone has the leverage and capacity to tell Rahul Gandhi to make sacrifices and accommodate regional parties.
Jaipal Reddy had once described her as “one of the finest graduates from the university of life”. There is some merit in it as Sonia was quick to learn that in the age of coalition politics, alliances were the way forward.
As I have written in “Sonia –A Biography” (Penguin), many years ago, Sonia and Mulayam Singh Yadav had attended a dinner at Somnath Chatterjee's residence. Sonia was tucking into a hilsa when Mulayam took a potshot, saying: "Madam, be careful. Hilsa hai. Kanta chubh jayega (the fish bone may hurt you)."
Sonia's retort was quick. "Main kanton se joojhna janti hoon (I know how to deal with thorns)," she said. 2004 tie-up with DMK was another example of realpolitik. DMK was a party which some senior Congress leaders had in 1997 accused of being soft on the LTTE, Sri Lankan militant outfit to whose bomb Rajiv Gandhi fell. However, from 2004-2014, she displayed a refreshing approach towards allies, even with people like the NCP which has had an ego clash, came around.
Throughout UPA years of 2004-14, Sonia kept both the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party in good humour even though they were rivals on Uttar Pradesh turf.
Delivering a lecture on "Living politics: what India has taught me" at the Nexus Institute Tilburg, Netherlands in 2007, Sonia had observed, “public life in India is characterised by vigorous debate and vehement contention. The cacophony of politics is the very music of our democracy."
Will voters on May 23 give an opening for “Sonia Gandhi dobara”?