Cong looking for middle ground with Mamata

New Delhi: With the ticklish issue of seat-sharing in West Bengal still undecided, Congress is increasingly realising that it may not have its way in negotiations with Mamata Banerjee as it did with DMK in Tamil Nadu and is looking for a middle ground.

The Congress is hoping to get at the most 70 seats as against 98 sought by the state unit and 58 offered by Mamata`s Trinamool Congress out of the 294.

Congress leaders admit that the situation in West Bengal is far different from that in Tamil Nadu, where it could push its ally into some sort of submission.

Party leaders say the the seat-sharing between Congress and Trinamool Congress is likely to conclude in a couple of days.

West Bengal PCC chief Manas Bhunia has already held preliminary talks with senior Trinamool Congress leaders Mukul Roy and Sudip Bandopadhyay, who were authorised by Mamata to talk to state Congress leaders on behalf of the party.

Bandopadhyay has, however, been replaced by Trinamool MP Gobinda Chandra Naskar.

Sources said the Congress, which was initially inclined to seek 98 seats, is now agreeable to around 75 seats while Mamata`s party appears to be in mood to give "not more than 65 seats", an improvement over its earlier offer of 45 seats which was later raised to 58.

"The formula for final talks is being worked out between senior party leader Pranab Mukherjee and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee. Mukherjee and CWC in-charge for the state Shakeel Ahmed could be visiting West Bengal to seal the deal anytime now," Congress sources said.

Though five of the six Congress MPs from the state excluding Mukherjee have said that the party should go it alone in the elections, Congress President Sonia Gandhi favoured the continuance of alliance, sources said.

The five MPs had a one-on-one meeting with Gandhi in the last three days during which they are learnt to have urged Gandhi not to give seats to Trinamool Congress in their Parliamentary seats.

The MPs also had a meeting with Mukherjee here in which Deepa Dasmunshi and A H Khan Chaudhoury, in particular, expressed reservations against having Trinamool candidates from constituencies in their seats.

A number of district presidents of the party had also earlier told the central leadership that Congress should contest on its own if it fails to get one-third of the total seats. They said the party should not succumb to pressure from Trinamool.

However, the senior leadership of the party is of the view that the alliance with Trinamool Congress should not be rocked, as the party is not that strong in West Bengal as in in Tamil Nadu.

It also views that any unsavoury bargaining with Trinamool Congress more so after the recent stormy seat sharing negotiations with DMK will give an impression that the party does not care for its allies.

A senior party leader said that Congress will be in a position of advantage if seat-sharing is in accordance with any formula except the one offered by Banerjee.

Congress has 19 MLAs while Trinamool Congress had won 30 seats in the last assembly elections in 2006 when they had contested separately.

"Both parties should get seats they won and the seats on which they finished second. The remaining seats can be distributed as per 1/3 formula in the proportion of seats, we contested in Lok Sabha election," a senior Congress leader said.

The leader also refused to attach much importance to Trinamool Congress` decision to field candidates in Assam, where Congress has ruled for two consecutive terms.

"Trinamool Congress will cut into opposition votes.

Voters, who are against the state government, vote to the opposition parties during elections. They will anyhow not vote for Congress. So what is the harm to us if Trinamool Congress also gets a share of the opposition votes there," a leader argued.

He claimed that the Trinamool`s decision to field candidates from Assam will rather give greater leverage to Congress to negotiate for greater number of seats in West Bengal.