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Compulsions, not rhetoric, make politics the art of the possible. Once they have had their diversions, astute politicians try to make a virtue of their compulsions. Mamata Banerjee has done as much by finally deciding to support Pranab Mukherjee, the United Progressive Alliance’s candidate, for the presidential poll. She has thus made common cause with Prakash Karat, the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), who had earlier seen and accepted a reality that he was powerless to change. Ms Banerjee had done no wrong in trying to look for an alternative to Mr Mukherjee, even if that nominee had no hope of winning the poll. She doomed her own efforts to failure by handling the whole issue rather ineptly. The fact that she and Mr Karat are now on the same boat should not really be surprising. If she opposed the UPA candidate and could not side with the Bharatiya Janata Party because of the Muslim factor in Bengal politics, she had no choice but to join hands with the so-called ‘third front’ parties such as the CPI(M). It is another matter that a nominee of such a front would not have had the winning numbers. Ms Banerjee is also right in not choosing to abstain from voting. Abstentions in indirect polls such as the presidential one are morally untenable because the voters represent not just themselves or their parties but the entire electorate in their constituencies.

However, there are lessons for the UPA in the discomfiture it had to face over Ms Banerjee’s earlier position. Given its numerical advantages and the split within the National Democratic Alliance over these polls, it should have been smooth sailing for the UPA. But the way the Congress leadership imposed its will on its UPA partners made things unnecessarily complicated. Ms Banerjee may have had her strategies wrong but the Congress too did not play its role in accordance with the coalition dharma. The Congress should make use of her volte-face in order to reach out to its allies more and thereby strengthen the idea of alliance politics. The events in the run-up to the two elections have their lessons also for the parties of the ‘third front’. They cannot offer real alternatives if they cannot break out of their narrow anti-Congress agenda.