Seeking to fish in troubled waters, the Congress on Saturday extended an olive branch to the Janata Dal – United, describing it as a "secular and like-minded party", on the eve of a possible decision by Nitish Kumar's party to snap ties with the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance.
At a time when Narendra Modi has become the poster boy of the BJP, the ruling Congress called for an alliance of secular forces in the nation's interest.
"JD-U is a like-minded party which has faith in secularism. It is in alliance with a party with which its ideology does not match," Congress spokesman Bhakta Charan Das told reporters, sending a clear signal for the first time that his party was not averse to doing business with Kumar's party.
His comments came close on the heels of party Vice President Rahul Gandhi's remarks in Srinagar that any decision on inviting the JD-U to join the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance will be taken by senior Congress leaders.
JD-U, the second largest constituent of the NDA with 20 Lok Sabha seats, is set to walk out of a 17 year-old association with the BJP, following the elevation of Narendra Modi as the chief of the BJP's election campaign committee.
The Congress' call for the coming together of "like minded secular forces" comes at a time when regional leaders like Naveen Patnaik, Mamata Banerjee and Kumar are talking about the formation of a Federal Front of non-Congress, non-BJP parties.
"Like-minded secular parties have come together in the past and can come together even in the future. Political formation of like-minded forces in the interest of the nation can happen any time," Das said.
Congress is sharing power at the Centre since May 2004 after the UPA under Sonia Gandhi ousted the Atal Behari Vajpayee- led NDA from power.
It has also formed a committee headed by senior leader A K Antony to go into the issue of alliances and find new friends and allies ahead of the Lok Sabha polls.
Das steered clear of questions on whether the JDU or the Rashtriya Janata Dal is the Congress’s natural ally in Bihar and which of the two it considers as more secular.
JD-U's principal rival in Bihar politics -- Lalu Prasad's RJD -- is an outside ally of UPA-II.
"Both parties advocate secularism. Today, we are with the RJD. There is no confusion on it. Tomorrow, if some situation emerges, our leaders will look into that. It's not the time for us to comment on it," he said when asked which of the two parties the Congress will prefer to team up with.
There is a view in the Congress that if the JD-U parts ways with the BJP, it will most likely support the Congress as a Third Front cannot emerge, whereas the RJD, too, will continue to back the UPA.
Claiming that only Congress can provide a strong and stable government at the Centre even in the future, Das said that there are internal "contradictions and confrontations" within the Opposition and they do not seem to be in a position to provide an alternative to the Congress.
The Congress spokesperson said that the formulation of secular parties is possible if these parties are concerned about the country's development.
To a question on whether a Third Front can emerge, he said, "There are many political parties who have their own policies. Any formulation can happen, but it is only the Congress which can provide a stable government."
Striking a similar note, Nationalist Congress Party general secretary D P Tripathi, whose party is part of the UPA, said in Mumbai, "We welcome JD-U to separate from the BJP and join secular forces".
Incidentally, the Congress’s statement came a couple of days after the CPI-M mouthpiece People's Democracy said the task is clear cut for the Left and democratic forces -- apart from fighting Congress policies, all efforts must be concentrated to defeat the Modi-led BJP in the coming elections.