Any confusion about tactics and goals midway through a battle is often indicative of the fear of failure in the midst of uncertainty. When the multi-phase election process is in an advanced stage, the Congress is suddenly talking in different voices about the prospects of a non-BJP government with a greater role for regional parties. While some voices within the party want to support the still-amorphous third front from the outside in government-formation, others want the party to join any government that requires its support. A few others, who are not willing to concede defeat so soon, are hopeful that the smaller parties could be persuaded to support a Congress-led government. Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan was the first among the senior leaders of the party to talk about a Congress-backed third front government in the event of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance failing to get an absolute majority. Mr. Chavan, while articulating his hope that potential allies of the BJP would not want Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister, ended up giving the impression that the Congress was willing to back a non-BJP government without joining it if only to keep “communal forces” out. Union Minister Jairam Ramesh, however, wanted the Congress to be part of a third front government in a situation where neither the BJP-led NDA nor the Congress-led UPA had the necessary numbers. If Mr. Chavan and Mr. Ramesh appeared comfortable with the idea of the Congress not leading such a non-BJP government, another senior leader, Digvijaya Singh, went back to the original party line that the dominant party, read the Congress, should lead the government.

While this induced debate on government-formation is unlikely to influence voting decisions in the remaining phases, the Congress might have succeeded in opening up channels of communication with the regional parties in the post-election scenario. Also, the bargaining powers of the regional parties vis-à-vis the BJP would have been strengthened by this third front debate. At the very least, the Congress must be hoping that its implicit willingness to engage with the regional parties without any pre-conditions could make things more difficult for Mr. Modi. The Congress has conceded too much to its potential post-poll allies even before the elections are over; but this must have seemed a small price to pay for making it difficult for the BJP to find new allies after the election. The desperation shows, but the Congress would not worry too much so long as it can add to the discomfiture of the BJP if the elections throw up a hung Parliament. Most other parties too seem to be keeping their options open, given the uncertainty over the tally of the NDA, which is ahead in the race.

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