|Mulayam Singh greets Sonia Gandhi. (PTI)
New Delhi, May 22: Mulayam Singh Yadav today held aloft the UPA’s anniversary report and told The Telegraph a little later that “I was given a lot of samman (respect)”.
The Congress is hoping that the message will get across to another M in Calcutta. “Mulayam’s presence and Mamata’s absence made our day,” a Congress leader could not help but blurt out, hastily “correcting” himself with the addition that the Bengal leader is still the UPA’s most valuable ally.
More samman was served when Mulayam was seated next to Sonia Gandhi at the evening’s high table with T.R. Baalu, Lalu Prasad, Rahul Gandhi and Trinamul’s Saugata Roy. Sonia made it a point to ensure Mulayam’s plate was full and conversed with him in snatches.
Just when it was assumed as a foregone conclusion that clouds of doom and gloom would envelop the UPA-II’s third anniversary meeting, the Congress pulled out a trump card in the shape of Mulayam.
“The message is three-fold,” said a Congress strategist from a northern state who claimed to have a close rapport with Mulayam. “We want to tell the country that far from being down and out, we are attracting strong parties like the Samajwadi that just won a spectacular victory. We have the numbers; so nobody can raise questions about the government’s longevity.
“Second, our commitment to secularism will always ensure that our coalition broadens and does not shrink like the BJP’s NDA. Last, with Mulayam on our side, we will take the BJP head on.”
Mulayam has 21 Lok Sabha MPs and eight Rajya Sabha MPs — one more than Trinamul that has 19 in the lower House and nine in the upper House. One seat, Kannauj, from the Samajwadi’s quota got vacated after Akhilesh Yadav’s resignation. His wife is set to contest from Kannauj in a bypoll in June.
More than the numbers, Congress sources said Mulayam’s positions on economic reforms were “more flexible” than Mamata’s.
Although Mulayam ruled out joining the UPA government and promised continued outside support, a source close to him explained: “It is imperative to keep good relations with the Centre. Our exchequer is empty and we need money to implement our poll promises before the Lok Sabha elections in 2014.”
A couple of weeks ago, a beaming Mamata had told reporters that henceforth she and Mulayam would work in tandem inside and outside Parliament on legislative and political issues.
The Trinamul Congress chief’s assertion followed her visit to Mulayam’s residence during her last trip to Delhi when the air in Parliament was overhung with speculation of what the duo would do in the presidential election. Together they own 1.75 lakh votes (the Samajwadi 1.30 lakh and Trinamul 45,000) in an electoral college of 10.98 lakh votes.
But Mulayam’s proactive presence at the anniversary meeting is being seized upon by the Congress to hope that the party would no longer “be pushed around”.
So ebullient was one minister that he said — only half in jest — that “now we have Mulayam and Lalu. All we need is the Left”. Lalu Prasad’s presence did not draw much attention because he is down and out now but his efficacy at bridge-building is still potent.
Mulayam and the UPA had not always found their dinners together agreeable. In 2011, he sat forlorn in a corner and left without partaking of the dinner that is served after the Prime Minister wraps up the ritual of unwrapping the annual report card.
Today, Mulayam arrived early, with Samajwadi Lok Sabha MP Shailendra Kumar in tow.
A little before the clock struck half past seven and the Prime Minister was about to do the honours, the seats on the dais were occupied by the Congress’s top ministers and those of the UPA, including Sharad Pawar of the NCP and T.R. Baalu of the DMK.
All heads turned when parliamentary affairs minister Pawan Kumar Bansal, who also anchored the show, ushered Mulayam in, hastily re-arranged the seating order and gave him a slot between the NCP’s Praful Patel and home minister P. Chidambaram.
A little while before Patel got on the stage, he told journalists that the UPA required just one “tagda” (strong) supporting party from outside to get its candidate in as President, instead of being subjected to the “vagaries” of “temperamental” partners.
“My choice would be Mulayam,” Patel said, little realising that the Samajwadi chief was a few steps behind him.
The dapper Patel clasped his hand and nodded in agreement when Mulayam stressed that Rashtrapati Bhavan required a “political” occupant and not a former bureaucrat.
“Netaji, look at your own career. You rose literally from the ground to preside over the country’s largest state. You had your share of ups and downs but didn’t allow adversities to put you down,” said Patel.
Mulayam virtually scotched the prospects of someone like Hamid Ansari, a former diplomat, making it to Rashtrapati Bhavan. “These officers (naukar shahi) lead cushy lives and get plum positions as sinecures. They are deferential to us (politicos) in their earlier avatars but once they get elected as governors or President, the roles change and that does cause problems,” he said.
Mamata had cited Meira Kumar, Gopalkrishna Gandhi and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam as her personal choices.
In 2008, Manmohan Singh sought Mulayam’s help to get his pet project, the Indo-US nuclear deal, past the Left. In 2012, Sonia seemed set to deploy Mulayam to bail the government out for the rest of its tenure, beginning with the presidential election.
Sonia greeted him with a namaste as she took her place after the Prime Minister on the dais and he smiled. Last week, Mulayam had told this newspaper that the Congress was not being “appropriately respectful” towards him despite his unconditional support to the Centre.
Mulayam reciprocated Sonia’s gesture by holding up the UPA’s report card with the coalition’s representatives and, in a sense, heralded the possibility of offering more committed support in the future, if required.
“I was given a lot of samman (respect),” Mulayam told this correspondent as he came down.