Caught in a bind of her own making, Mamata Banerjee could only follow one of the two time-tested prescriptions.
One was from the legendary Chinese treatise on military strategy, The Art of War, attributed to Sun Tzu: “When all else fails, escape.” She could have transcribed it as “since all else has failed, abstain”. The other was: “If you can’t beat them, join them.”
She chose to go by the second one, simply because the other choice was even worse.
Before one tries to see why and how she made what she herself called an unhappy choice, it is necessary to recall how she put herself in the bind in the first place.
She opposed Pranab Mukherjee’s candidature but didn’t ever explain why she did so. He is the UPA’s nominee, she continues to be in the alliance. Even so, she — or any other UPA ally for that matter — had every right to propose another name. But it’s common sense, in politics or in other fields, that you don’t lay your cards on the table unless you are sure they are winning cards.
Instead, she supported A.P.J. Abdul Kalam who had no chance of being accepted by the Congress. If she was hell-bent on opposing Mukherjee, she could have come up with some other name that the Congress could have considered. But her action had exactly the opposite effect of what she had aimed at.
She forced Sonia Gandhi to put her seal of approval on Mukherjee, although 10 Janpath was always believed to have reservations about the man whose ambitions once put him in conflict with the family.
Mamata never gave her reason for opposing Mukherjee, but everybody knew it —she had a visceral dislike of the man. Not even her own political constituency would take that as a good enough political reason. Thus it was not quite the same as her many differences with the UPA or the Centre on issues such as the Teesta water agreement, FDI in multibrand retail or the land acquisition bill.
In those cases, she could project her objections as matters of principle and her political constituents could actually sell them as such.
With Mukherjee, it was pure and simple personal.
Or so she seemed to signal. This was hardly a winning strategy. That lack of strategy showed again in her opposition to the UPA candidate for Vice-President, Hamid Ansari, as well.
Nobody seemed to be quite sure why she was doing what she was doing, given the fact that she had not the slightest chance of getting her candidates win the polls. Her party supporters were dumbfounded in public and bitterly critical in private.
Worst of all, her choices for the two polls — Kalam and former Bengal governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi — had no clue that their names would be tossed around in her make-believe battles. Both withdrew from the battles before they began. In fact, one of her nominees was rumoured to have promptly sent word to 10 Janpath that this was not his fault.
A pretty mess it was for Mamata. But why didn’t she see it as such? Her blunders were not exactly historic, but what made her commit them anyway?
The commonest explanation is that she is going the way of all people in power — blinded by pride before the fall. Largely true. How else would she think that the Congress — with 200+ seats in the Lok Sabha — would submit to a party with 19 MPs? How else would she fail to see that Mulayam Singh Yadav may have much more value — numerical and otherwise — than her to the Congress, now and in the future?
Everyone talks of the crucial role the next President can play in the event of another fractured mandate in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Even if she retains her current popular appeal, the best her party could hope to notch up would be around 20. Mulayam, on the other hand, could bring 50 seats from Uttar Pradesh to the table in the event of a bargain with the Congress in May 2014. How couldn’t Mamata see the difference?
The answer, some argue, lies in the history of Bengali politicians’ inability to grasp the realities of India’s national politics. This inability has made big Bengali leaders, adored and lionised on home turf, utterly irrelevant in the labyrinths of New Delhi’s power games.
That’s exactly what Mamata reduced herself to — irrelevance in national politics, at least in the context of the two polls. What she did or didn’t do hardly mattered for the Congress or the UPA. Nothing could be more suicidal for a leader of a small, regional party, especially in the age of coalition politics.
Now see what effects her actions were producing on other players. The Congress fumed, the CPM fanned the flame of divide between her and the Congress and the BJP lay in wait for its opportunity to wean her back into the NDA.
In Bengal, Congressmen seized their moment of revenge. This time, it wasn’t just personal hatred that propelled Deepa Das Munshi or Adhir Chowdhury into anti-Mamata campaigns. The Bengal Congress now had a justifiable political cause — Mamata hadn’t just opposed the Congress nominee, she was also out to queer the pitch for a potential first Bengali President of India. And she was doing that only to spite Mukherjee.
From Facebook to the street, the Congress battle against Mamata was taking shape. And the Bengal unit couldn’t be doing all this without more than a nudge from the high command.
Worse still for Mamata, the CPM not only supported the UPA’s two candidates but was edging closer to the Congress in other ways. Her disastrous strategy ended up uniting her old enemy, the CPM, with her new enemy in Bengal, the Congress. This couldn’t be a good omen for either next year’s rural polls in Bengal or for the parliamentary elections the year after.
If the Congress and the Left come closer, as they did after the 2004 Lok Sabha polls, Mamata will be left with the only option of going back to the BJP, as she did earlier. But the BJP door is now slammed shut for her, thanks to her newfound dependence on the Muslim vote in Bengal. So the Congress was her only choice for a partner.
Smiles or scowls, her decision to finally support Mukherjee proves that Mamata too knows the limits of brinkmanship in politics. If she had stuck to opposing Mukherjee, her continuation in the UPA would have been untenable and completely at the Congress’s mercy. She would have lost all her bargaining power with New Delhi and faced an increasingly belligerent Congress in Bengal with or without the CPM in tow.
Mamata may have saved herself from greater trouble in the future by joining Mukherjee whom she couldn’t hope to beat.