India: Congress reaches out to Left

NEW DELHI: Rahul Gandhi, heir to India's powerful Congress dynasty, reached out to the communists on Tuesday to help form a new government if his party wins marathon general elections.

The olive branch came two days before the penultimate round of voting in the elections, which are being staggered across the country of more than 1.1 billion people over a month.

Analysts say Congress is unlikely to be able to form a new coalition without the communists, who are a powerful force in the eastern state of West Bengal and the southern state of Kerala.

"The field is open to post-poll alliances," Gandhi, Congress's star campaigner touted as a future premier, told a news conference in the national capital New Delhi, one of the battlegrounds in Thursday's voting.

Gandhi, 38, a descendant of the Nehru-Gandhi lineage which has given India three prime ministers, said there was a large amount of common ground with the Left and Congress on income distribution, health and education.

But he added that "there is absolutely no meeting ground" with the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), branding the Hindu nationalists "totally finished".

India's elections in recent years have traditionally been followed by intense horse-trading to form a government.

BJP spokesman Rajiv Pratap Rudy, meanwhile, objected strongly to Gandhi's claim that the party was doomed, saying that Congress would "emerge as a political debris post elections, scavenging for survival".

The Left, for its part, spurned Gandhi's overtures.

"This is an election ploy. They know they are not going to get the numbers and they're nervous," said Communist Party of India general secretary A.B. Bardhan.

"I don't think the Left will oblige them this time," he said.

The communists are angling for a secular, non-Congress government -- a so-called "Third Front" -- to come to power.

Gandhi insisted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would be the party's candidate for premier if it gets a mandate to form the government.

"Manmohan Singh is the best prime minister the country can have," he said.

But Singh has become a hurdle to Congress's hopes of forming a government because of hostility from the communists who withdrew their support from the ruling coalition last year to protest the signing of a nuclear pact with the United States.

Media reports have suggested Congress may be forced to ditch Singh, 76, a Gandhi family loyalist, if he proves too much of a liability.

Analysts also say deal-making appears set to eclipse ideology in forming the government.

"Past commitments, positions or loyalties seem to count for very little," said Subhash Agrawal, editor of India Focus, a political analysis and forecasting report.

"It still looks like the Congress may just about return to power by the skin of its teeth, but only after negotiating hard and after compromising heavily with Left parties," he added.

If Singh returns as prime minister, he's expected to step aside for Rahul Gandhi midway through his term, many observers say.

Analysts say the elections may throw up an unstable coalition that could mean fresh polls within a couple of years.

Rahul could then emerge as the "fresh young face" of Congress, they say.