There are 75 days from the Election Commission announcing the poll schedule until the results of the 15th general election start pouring in. For four-fifths of this period we shall be entertained by the United Progressive Alliance, the National Democratic Alliance and the Left Front each telling us how unfit the other two are for government.
The first 15 days or so, however, shall be slightly different. Starting today, the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Communist Party of India-Marxist will squabble with their principal allies within the formations they lead.
Let me start by throwing up some numbers for consideration so that you can see how important the allies are going to be. The Congress won 145 seats in 2004. The BJP garnered 138. The CPI-M succeeded in getting 43. In other words, between them the three largest parties accounted for only 326 seats in a Lok Sabha that has a total strength of 543. The other 217 seats fell to smaller outfits (most of which were aligned with one of the three big guns at some point).
Obviously no single party was anywhere close to forming a ministry on its own. In fact, even a two-party government was not possible except in the unlikely event of the Congress and the BJP forming a grand coalition.
What are the chances of the Congress, the BJP and the CPI-M actually improving from 2004? Does anyone seriously believe that either the Congress or the BJP can reach the 200 mark, leave alone both of them? On the other hand, several of the smaller parties believe they have a decent chance of improving their position in the next Lok Sabha.
Let us begin with the Congress since it is the ruling party. Its principal allies are the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, the Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra, the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar and in Jharkhand, and the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham in Tamil Nadu. The first three began to raise demands well before the Election Commission announced the dates.
Both the Congress and the BJP did horribly in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state. The Congress won just nine seats, two of which were Sonia Gandhi's Rae Bareli and Rahul Gandhi's Amethi, the safest of safe seats given the candidates. The BJP performed only marginally better with 10 seats, one of which was Atal Bihari Vajpayee's Lucknow. Given that giant Uttar Pradesh elects 80 Lok Sabha MPs this was truly miserable.
The Samajwadi Party, the Congress's nominal ally since the nuclear deal with the United States, has spent much of the past six months doing its best to strengthen itself at the cost of the Congress. Most of the headlines were taken up with Amar Singh, the Samajwadi Party general secretary, criticising the Congress at every opportunity, particularly his Congress counterpart Digvijay Singh. What has been lost in the ruckus is the fact that the Samajwadi Party announced candidates for at least 47 seats -- all without consulting the Congress and all before the Election Commission announced the election dates.
The same tactics -- first criticise, then negotiate -- are being applied by the Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra. The first shot was fired with an editorial in the party organ Rashtrawadi.
The relevant portion read: 'If Sharad Pawar or Lalu Yadav want to be PM it is called being power-hungry but if Rahul Gandhi wants to be PM, it is in the interest of the country. It is because of this arrogance that an inexperienced youth like Rahul is trying to teach senior leaders. In the coming elections, if the NCP get more seats then the Congress, then the Congress arrogance under Sonia Gandhi's leadership will suffer.'
This was followed by a list of areas where the NCP expected the Congress to negotiate -- up to half the seats in Maharashtra and a shot at the chief minister's chair in the state. (Maharashtra, by the way, is second only to Uttar Pradesh in the number of Lok Sabha seats, and is, of course, much more prosperous.)
Finally, the irrepressible Lalu Yadav has come up with the modest suggestion that he might make a pretty good prime minister in a "secular" government. (Sharad Pawar and Mulayam Singh Yadav would probably agree -- if only on behalf of themselves!)
Are the SP, the NCP, and the RJD serious? Given the ego of the average politician you never can tell but I suspect they were merely laying out bargaining positions. But if they started doing all this weeks, even months, ago, can you imagine the hard bargaining that will take place now that elections are so close?
You may have noted that I omitted the DMK from that list. That is because Karunanidhi is no position to make any demands. All he really wants is reassurance that the Congress shall not ditch him for his great rival J Jayalalithaa.
How about the CPI-M? One thing that is almost guaranteed is that the Left Front in general shall not do as well as it did last time, when it won almost 60 seats in the Lok Sabha. In 2004, the Left Front was aided by a general wave of revulsion in Kerala, something that ensured not a single Congress candidate was elected from the state; its other stronghold, West Bengal, had not yet endured popular revolts in Singur and Nandigram.
The situation has changed today, significantly for the worse from the perspective of the Left Front. But that has not stopped the CPI, the Forward Bloc, and the Revolutionary Socialist Party from demanding more of Big Brother CPI-M.
What of the BJP? It is hard to say that it is better off than the Congress and the CPI-M, it might be more accurate to say that it is less badly off. It is on relatively good terms with the Janata Dal-United in Bihar, with the Akali Dal in Punjab, the Assam Gana Parishad in Assam, and the Biju Janata Dal in Orissa. But the alliance with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra is on distinctly shaky ground. Between them the two parties won 25 of Maharashtra's 48 seats. How will the BJP fare should its oldest ally break away?
Just to muddy the waters, Pawar's NCP has already openly stated that it is open to an alliance with "anyone but the BJP". In the context of Maharashtra politics that is an open invitation to the Shiv Sena.
All this is shadow-boxing. There is no real chance that Pawar will ditch the Congress in Maharashtra, for instance, or that the CPI will defy the CPI-M. But the larger parties are so nervous that they do not want even to risk any such thing.
The three major parties will use the next 15 days for housecleaning. But what price must they pay for keeping their allies happy? As things stand today the Congress and the BJP are hard put to summon even a simple majority in the Lok Sabha. When the new House reconvenes in summer could we see a situation where not two but even the three largest parties will be pressed to reach the magic number of 272?