Never did the country’s oldest party look so diminished as it did on the evening of June 13—and never did its government get so quickly enfeebled. In little less than an hour, three top central leaders were cut down to size in full public view by two regional satraps. And, what was to be a “consultative step” towards electing the next president ended up throwing question marks over the authority of UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, the confidence of alliance partners in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the acceptability of his cabinet’s most experienced face, finance minister Pranab Mukherjee. Before nightfall, TV talking heads were debating the longevity of the ruling alliance and the prospect of early general elections. And the buzzword M&M—short for Mamata Banerjee and Mulayam Singh Yadav—was on every lip.
Bluff, both in politics and in the game of poker, is a gambit that requires a high degree of skill. The strategy involves raising the bet to convey the impression that you have better cards than you actually do, hoping for your rival to fold up. Mamata dug in her heels on her “number one candidate”, saying they’d prefer to contest if there was no consensus and left the issue of a mid-term election as well as her exit from the UPA to the Congress. But when you play poker, all players can resort to bluff. The Congress rejected the candidature of M&M’s nominees, remaining firm on its own candidate.
Mamata Banerjee will, of course, be incensed at the suggestion of playing political poker. She likes to play it straight, and on this occasion too, she offered a simple enough narrative through a New Delhi-based journalist on national television. She received a call from Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary, Ahmed Patel, requesting her to visit New Delhi urgently, either on Tuesday or on Wednesday, for consultations over the presidential election. Patel offered to arrange for an aircraft at short notice to fly her out.
“What consultation?” the lady is believed to have shrieked at Patel. “I am told the Congress has already finalised the name of Pranab Mukherjee. So what’s left for consultation?” Patel, the Mamata camp claims, denied the names were final and stressed that Sonia and Manmohan would be going out of the country and hence Mamata’s presence was necessary for consultations.
In the end, Mamata flew into Delhi. But upon landing on Tuesday evening, the first thing she did was call on Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh. On Wednesday, she drove into 10, Janpath, in her Maruti Zen, met Sonia, and as she whizzed out, let it be known rather volubly that the Congress president had said Pranab was her first choice; and vice-president Hamid Ansari the second. It was the first time anybody had revealed Sonia’s thinking. But it didn’t stop there. Mamata again drove straight to Mulayam’s residence and, within moments, the two were revealing their preferences: former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, former Lok Sabha speaker Somnath Chatterjee and—surprise, surprise—Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
It was faster than 20-20 cricket. Switch hits, sudden twists and colourful commentary. As the Congress cheerleaders went into a huddle, cancelling the daily press briefing, the word was out in Lutyens’ Delhi: Mamata had tied up with the very man the Congress was wooing, Mulayam—who just a fortnight earlier had been presented as a prize catch at the UPA third anniversary—to sock it to Sonia. And Manmohan. And Pranab.
Why M&M had strayed from the storyline was a matter of rumour, gossip and speculation. Was Pranab Mukherjee’s acceptability across the political spectrum really only one of the most artfully constructed myths of our time? Were M&M showing that they couldn’t be taken for granted, or were they playing hardball to extract their pound of flesh? Were the states dictating terms to the Centre, as they have all year? Was Mamata, indeed, taking one subtle step closer to the NDA?
There were no easy answers. The morning after, Congress emerged from its shock for some rearguard action. First, it indicated there would be no change in leadership of the government; Manmohan would stay till 2014. And then, it suggested that Mamata had breached decorum by revealing the contents of her conversation with Sonia. It didn’t stop conspiracy theorists from having a field day. Would M&M have on their own dared to suggest that Manmohan would be better off as president? Why did Sonia float Pranab’s name knowing Mamata’s antipathy to him—and Ansari’s, despite Mulayam’s well-advertised distaste for “bureaucrats” occupying Raisina Hill? Was Sonia trying to put Pranab’s high-decibel campaign in its place by revealing he was not the only name on her mind? The Congress added fuel to the fire by not scotching the suggestions immediately. Was it a signal to M/s Singh & Mukherjee to hang up their boots?
Mamata herself seemed to deny gossip that it was Sonia’s idea to test the waters and see if the PM would agree to relinquish his office mid-term and become president. “Give us credit when it is due,” she is said to have snapped. “Why does the media always give them the credit?” According to her, the script was simple. She and Mulayam had discussed probable names and had come up with the name of Manmohan Singh. In fact, she told the correspondent of a leading Bengali daily she had suggested the names of Kalam, Somnath and Manmohan even in her meeting with Sonia. On hearing the last name, Sonia, according to the journalist, was said to have asked Mamata: “But will he agree?”
Never before has a serving PM been told so bluntly that he is not good enough for the job and should now retire to Raisina Hill. A section within the UPA has indeed been vocal about the need to change horses midstream. The government looks rudderless, clueless and tired, and there is bad news all round. The question had, in fact, been asked of Manmohan himself, who had blandly replied that he was happy where he was. Sonia too had quashed demands for a change of guard at the Congress Working Committee meeting. If the demand had Sonia’s blessings, said Congressmen, it would not have ended in a whimper.
Has Mamata, who has a mere four per cent of the votes in the electoral college—less than even the Left parties she replaced in West Bengal—bitten off more than she could chew? Or is she going to have the last laugh in the charade over the presidential election? Would the Left parties, which had noisily exited the UPA in 2008, quietly return to fill the breach caused by Trinamool’s exit to bail out the alliance? Was Pranab talking to Buddhadeb Bhattacharya?
As the Congress hardened its position, indicating that Pranab, with friends across political parties, was still its first choice, Mamata announced she wouldn’t attend the UPA meeting on Friday: “If the Congress is adamant on Pranab, I’ll remain so on Kalam.” But would every member of the NDA, including, say JD(U), back ex-president Kalam’s bid to become president again? Why would Kalam, who had declined to “contest” in 2007 if there was no consensus, change his stance now?
As the pendulum swung between consensus, compromise and contest, it seemed only a matter of time before Mamata broke away from the UPA although she reiterated that she would not do anything to precipitate such a split. But by Thursday evening, it was clear that the Congress was quietly moving to break the M&M alliance. Simultaneously, it was working towards severing ties with TMC, a demand made consistently by the party’s West Bengal unit, which had described Mamata’s rejection of Pranab’s candidature as an act resembling Mir Jafar’s. He was, after all, the first Bengali with a serious shot at presidency.
The spat also opened up the possibility of the Trinamool parliamentary party splitting on the issue. While Mamata constantly complains of the Congress not consulting her and taking her for granted, she herself rarely consults her MPs or ministers before taking key decisions. That there is simmering resentment within the party is also an open secret and it remains to be seen how she reacts if her nominees in the Union ministry are forced to quit.
Both Mamata and Mulayam have made no secret of their aspiration for higher central aid and ‘special packages’ for UP and West Bengal. Mulayam’s brother, Rajya Sabha MP Ram Gopal Yadav, is also known to have voiced his ambition of becoming the vice-president. In this backdrop, putting pressure on the Congress was par for the course.
Could it be a case of posturing going awry? Both M&M could be looking at forging fresh alliances for the 2014 general election. The two are obviously not averse to a mid-term poll either. Having secured overwhelming majorities in their respective state assemblies, the two are confident of improving their tally and routing the Congress were a mid-term poll to be held in the near future. The two parties together have 41 MPs in the current Lok Sabha but expect the tally to go up to 75 or more in such an eventuality.
As the calculators came up, the questions continued to rage. Why had the consultations been delayed till the eleventh hour? More importantly, why were they being held through the media in full public glare? And if Sonia did want to ease out the old, tried and the tired from the government, why would she allow Mamata and Mulayam to make a public spectacle of it? Is it possible that M&M were too clever by half with high-stakes winner-takes-all poker?
The options before UPA in prez race
Swallow the public snub delivered by Mamata Banerjee and Mulayam Singh Yadav. Reach out and build support among NDA and Left parties for Pranab Mukherjee or Hamid Ansari.
- Chances: Very unlikely
- Risk factor: Low
NDA has smelt blood with Mamata snub and wouldn’t want to let go of a chance to embarrass UPA further
Drop TMC from UPA. Work on Mulayam, whose son needs central funds, to come around. Woo Left. Assuage with vice-presidency to a candidate of their choice.
- Chances: Possible
- Risk factor: Medium
Given state of Congress, doing groundwork for partners for next election will be useful
Stick to Pranab as first-choice candidate. Entice NDA to drag Abdul Kalam into a slugfest he isn’t keen to fight. Allow P.A. Sangma’s candidature to steal opposition thunder.
- Chances: Very likely
- Risk factor: High
Pranab has friends across the board but Kalam is not short of support. Defeat could spell end to UPA-II.
Both sides agree that none of the names they have thrown up have much carry. UPA looks for and finds a candidate that’s also acceptable to NDA and Left parties.
- Chances: Possible but unlikely
- Risk factor: Zero
Neither major alliance wants to concede ground to the other ahead of the next general election
The Day After
10 Unanswered Questions
- Does a section of Congressmen want Manmohan Singh out as prime minister?
- Are corporates, business houses eager to see lacklustre Pranab out as finance minister?
- Why is Abdul Kalam, risk-averse in 2007, so eager to risk his image in 2012?
- Will UPA-II last its full term if TMC pulls out and Pranab loses in a contest?
- If Pranab wins in a contest, who will become Congress’s lead troubleshooter?
- Would Pranab have stood a chance if Rahul Gandhi had passed the UP test?
- Why are Left parties unenthusiastic about Hamid Ansari’s candidature?
- By floating Manmohan’s name, has Mamata gifted PM a new lease of life?
- Are the general elections, due in 2014, likely to be held earlier, possibly in 2013?
- If Pranab becomes president, can he be ‘trusted’, should the Congress be in need?
By Anuradha Raman with Pranay Sharma, Panini Anand and Pragya Singh
This piece was published before the UPA officially announced Pranab Mukherjee as its presidential candidate on June 15 -- Web Ed.