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Hectic political activity in capital
New Delhi, May 17
A day after the ruling Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) won a clear and decisive mandate for a second term, there was hectic political activity in the national capital today as the winners began the process of forming the next government and the losers held meetings to analyse the reasons for the reverses suffered by them.
There was, in particular, a great deal of speculation about whether the Congress would invite the three members of the Fourth Front---comprising the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), who were UPA allies but failed to reach a seat-sharing agreement---to join the government.
As things have turned out, the Congress has got 206 seats on its own and the UPA has managed to get 262 seats in the Lok Sabha, which has 545 members, including two nominated members from the Anglo-Indian community, and needs only a few more members to cross the half-way mark.
The Samajwadi Party has become the single biggest party in Uttar Pradesh with 24 seats, the RJD four and the LJP none.
Many Congress leaders are of the view that the party should stick to its pre-poll allies and avoid any truck with the SP and its leaders Mulayam Singh Yadav and Amar Singh at all costs.
They feel that they could achieve the required numbers with the help of independents and some of the smaller parties.
There is also a feeling in the Congress that the regional parties such as SP and RJD have taken the political space that it once occupied and any alliance with them would hamper the party's efforts to rebuild the organisation in states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
The decision to go it alone in Uttar Pradesh was vindicated ultimately by the fact that the Congress managed to get 20 seats this time from the politically crucial state.
Meanwhile, there were indications today that the Janata Dal (S) of former Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda would support the UPA. There was some speculation in this regard also about the Rashtriya Lok Dal of Ajit Singh which has won five seats, though the party had aligned itself with the NDA earlier.
The Congress leadership discussed the issue briefly today and decided that the matter would be discussed at a meeting of the Congress Parliamentary Party on Tuesday and then with its pre-poll allies.
There is also much interest in political circles in the capital on figuring out who will finally make it to the new Cabinet.
In particular, there was speculation on who the new Finance Minister would be, with some reports suggested that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was keen on inducting Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia for the job. Commerce Minister Kamal Nath is also considered a likely candidate for the job.
It was also generally felt that the new Council of Ministers would give greater representation to younger MPs this time than in the past, particularly because of the emphasis being laid on a greater role for youth in politics by party General Secretary Rahul Gandhi.
Dr Singh himself has said that he would be happy to have Mr Gandhi in the Council of Ministers, but the Lok Sabha member from Amethi has said that he thought his job was to work to strengthen the party and help more youth enter politics. He has earlier said that he would join the government only if forced to do so by his "boss".
Some of the young MPs likely to find a place in the new Council of Ministers could include Sachin Pilot, Milind Deora, Priya Dutt and Naveen Jindal. Jyotiraditya Scindia and Jitin Prasad had got berths in the outgoing ministry.
The Core Group of the Congress met first in the early part of the day to discuss the post-election scenario. The meeting was attended by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other leaders such as Pranab Mukherjee, Ahmed Patel, P Chidambaram and A K Antony.
Later, there was a meeting of the Congress Working Committee (CWC), at which Dr Singh said the clear mandate for the UPA would help the new government handle the global economic crisis as well as the problems and threats arising out of the turmoil in India's neighbourhood better.
Mrs Gandhi said the real hard work for the party began now. She said the Congress must be a party of neutral governance and make a sincere effort to take the nation forward.
During the day, there were strong indications from the SP that it was keen on joining the government and its leaders Mulayam Singh Yadav and Amar Singh were due to meet Dr Singh tonight. RJD leader Lalu Prasad has also given similar indications.
Congress sources indicated that the process of forming the next government could take a few days and the swearing-in ceremony could take place on Friday.
In the opposition ranks, there were some murmurs in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). NDA convener Sharad Yadav the projection of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as a possible successor to the BJP's Prime Ministerial candidate Lal Krishna Advani had led to confusion among the voters. Further, he felt the hate speeches allegedly made by BJP candidate Varun Gandhi during election rallies in Uttar Pradesh had gone against the NDA.
Mr Advani himself has not reacted to the election results so far, but he received a stream of visitors during the day, including party leaders and newly-elected BJP MPs. He also had a meeting with some leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) today.
The four Left parties, which were reduced to just 24 seats in the Lok Sabha as compared to 61 in 2004, also met here today to analyse the election results and chalk out a strategy for the future.
Communist Party of India (CPI) leader A B Bardhan told reporters later that the Left Front had decided to work as a responsible opposition in Parliament. It would also continue its co-operation with non-Congress, non-BJP parties, he said.
The meeting decided that each constituent of the Front would review the election reverses individually before they come to a collective decision on the steps to take for the future.
The meeting was also attended by the Communist Party of India-Marxist's Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury, the CPI's D Raja, the Revolutionary Socialist Party's T J Chandrachoodan and the Forward Bloc's Debabrata Biswas and D Devarajan.
There were also indications that the Third Front, which the Left parties were spearheading, may not take off. A meeting of the Front scheduled for tomorrow has been postponed. In fact, there is talk that one of the main constituents of the Front, the JD(S), is likely to join the government.
A Left leader admitted the Third Front had become irrelevant for the time being, though it was not being abandoned entirely.
Meanwhile, the present Union Council of Ministers will meet tomorrow morning for one last night before Dr Singh goes to meet President Pratibha Patil and submit the resignation of his government. As per normal practice, the President is expected to ask Dr Singh to continue in office till a new government is in place.
Mrs Patil is scheduled to host a dinner for the outgoing Council of Ministers tomorrow, sources said.
Political observers were trying to read meanings into a telephone call that Mrs Gandhi made to Mr Lalu Prasad, the Railway Minister in the present Cabinet, to request him to attend tomorrow's meeting of the Council of Ministers. One view was that Mrs Gandhi was trying to reach out to an estranged ally and that Mr Prasad might be included in the new Cabinet after all. Mr Prasad has gone on record to say that his party's decision to not contest the elections as an ally of the Congress was a big mistake.