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Prime punch
Mamata and Mulayam junk Pranab, spring Singh’s name

New Delhi, June 13: Few are sure yet if this constitutes an open dare to the Congress leadership or the playing out of a scripted palace intrigue, but the presidential sweepstakes have been kick-jerked into a high-voltage humdinger that could reshape the face of politics in coming weeks.

On the face of it, the Big Two among the UPA’s allies — Mamata Banerjee and Mulayam Singh Yadav — this afternoon used the presidential contest to virtually demand a change of government by resorting to an unprecedented proposition that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh be considered one of three choices for Rashtrapati Bhavan.

In a stunning turn of events, Mamata and Mulayam rejected outright the two Congress picks —- finance minister Pranab Mukherjee and Vice-President Hamid Ansari in that order — and announced at a joint media conference that their preferred candidate would be from among A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Manmohan Singh and Somnath Chatterjee.

Less than an hour separated Mamata’s meeting with Sonia Gandhi in which the Congress president gave out the names of Mukherjee and Ansari, and the subsequent huddle between Mamata and Mulayam.

In the space of that electric hour, the campaign for Raisina Hill appeared to have twisted course and become a power skirmish between the Congress and key props to its government.

The implications of the Mamata-Mulayam card played today may well go beyond merely scuppering Mukherjee’s bid to crown his political career with India’s presidency; many in the Congress are viewing it as a frontal challenge to the Congress leadership itself.

The tail has declared it wants to wag the dog; the dog must now respond to that dare.

In what’s reminiscent of the 1969 tussle for presidentship when Indira Gandhi battled — and eventually defeated — the Syndicate, the race for Rashtrapati Bhavan is now a war within, which the NDA is, at least for the time being, happy to watch from the sidelines.

The Congress appears to have suddenly lost the Samajwadi Party as a counterweight to the mercurial Mamata and must now prepare to either negotiate an honourable bargain with the newfound alliance of the two Ms or take them on.

The caprices of coalition politics have thrown up a rude surprise for those who thought that the Congress’s nod to Mukherjee would seal the game in his favour in view of the support he appeared to have “outside the Congress”. The search for a consensus in the UPA — successful or otherwise — will be longer, and more painstaking, yet.

The Congress, significantly silent on the return volley from Mamata and Mulayam, has called a UPA meeting but there is nothing to suggest what tack it will follow.

Will it press for agreement on Mukherjee or Ansari? Will it give in to one of the names suggested by allies? Will it pull out, as often in the past, a dark horse? Nobody knows.

The fact probably is that the jaw-dropping drama that unfolded live on television may not have revealed the whole plot unspooling behind significant closed doors. What was not said today may be as crucial, if not more, than what was said out loud. For a start, the silence of the Congress to the blunt rebuff from its allies on a proposal made by Sonia, no less.

There is no clue yet to making sense of how the Congress leadership has received the counter-proposal from its allies or how it intends to respond. There is even lesser knowledge of what really happened behind the closed doors at 10 Janpath or at 16 Ashoka Road, the residence of Mulayam where Mamata met him subsequent to her talks with the Congress president.

Several narratives, contrary and conspiratorial, spewed off the utter lack of information up front, which itself may have been part of the design, if there is a covert one at play here. The Congress, a classic coalition of factions that has required the glue of a Nehru-Gandhi Leviathan to hold together, was abuzz with all manner of guesswork, some of which approached logic but none possessed of the seal of truth.

Narrative One: A section that has long been allergic to Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister and tried playing on perceived differences between him and Sonia, was keen to push the line that the leadership wants a change of guard and prompting the allies lobby for Manmohan as President was the “best way” to effect it. The Prime Minister’s establishment, irate at Mamata’s suggestion, rubbished the idea out of hand and recalled Manmohan’s remark on the flight back from his recent visit to Myanmar. Asked if there was a possibility he could become the next President, Manmohan had put on a grin and said: “I am quite happy where I am.”

Sources in the Congress put another perspective on why it is “erroneous” to see the day’s developments as an underhand way to get rid of Manmohan. They explained that should the party want a change in leadership it cannot be seen as doing it at the behest of its allies; that would be politically suicidal and place the government totally at the mercy of lesser partners.

Pertinently, though, there was no official word from the Congress in defence of Manmohan; “no question of changing the Prime Minister” was an assertion made by party spokespersons strictly off the record.

It is quite possible even they were groping in the dark, trying to second-guess what’s working in the mind of Sonia.

Narrative Two: Manmohan as presidential nominee along with Kalam and Somnath Chatterjee is just a red herring. There is no revolt against the government. This was stage-managed by backroom players to snuff out Mukherjee’s bid without the Congress leadership having to take the blame. Kalam is unacceptable to the Congress because he is widely perceived as an “NDA man”, but there could be some deal on Somnath.

Narrative Three: There is indeed a serious crisis in the beleaguered UPA, with its two most powerful allies seeing an opportunity to dictate terms to an emaciated government and strike hard bargains.

If that results in the fall of the government and early polls, neither Mamata nor Mulayam would mind because they have both won huge victories on their turfs fairly recently. In that case, the Congress either braves a tough contest and secures Rashtrapati Bhavan or loses the reins of South Block.


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