Hoping against hope, Congress leaders were banking on a miracle, expecting regional parties to spoil the celebration of BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, who exit polls have predicted will have a smooth march into the Parliament. Conceding that its own numbers will decline sharply, Congress President Sonia Gandhi has reportedly asked Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar to play a role in consolidating secular forces since there is no one within the Congress who commands a pan-party clout and has connections; the person who earlier played this role, Pranab Mukherjee, is now President. The party is also missing CPI (M) stalwart HS Surjeet, who had helped Mrs Gandhi cobble together a secular alliance in 2004 to unseat the BJP-led NDA.
Such is the bonhomie between Mrs Gandhi and Pawar that they have been in touch over recent political developments. They had a one-on-one meeting on Wednesday after the farewell party for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
According to party sources, Mrs Gandhi asked Pawar on more than one occasion in the past one week to talk to Trinamool Congress leader and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee and Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati to discuss the threat to India's secularism. The Congress is hoping for a fractured mandate and a better performance by regional parties. This is why Mrs Gandhi has started calling Mamata and Mayawati to ensure that they do not lend support to the NDA.
Her other aides, Ahmed Patel and Kamal Nath, are in touch with Samajwadi Party's Mulayam Singh Yadav, Biju Janata Dal's Naveen Patnaik, YSR Congress' Jaganmohan Reddy and Telangana Rashtra Samiti's K Chandrasekhar Rao. Patel is expecting hung Assemblies in Telangana and Seemandhra and that may make Rao and Reddy agreeable to a give-and-take to side with the Congress for Parliament in lieu of support in the two southern states. The only other major player that the Congress has desisted from reaching out to so far is AIADMK chief and Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa.
Congress leaders say if secular parties consolidate, they will conceded the post of prime minister to regional players, most likely to Mamata Banerjee. The idea came from senior Congress leader Rashid Alvi, saying, "It may be difficult for us to form the government, but all secular forces should come together to keep Narendra Modi away from power." He suggested that regional parties elect Mamata, who is secular, competent and honest beyond doubt, as their leader.