In what could cause irretrievable cracks in the already beleaguered UPA,its key allies Mamata Banerjee and Mulayam Singh Yadav today openly colluded to inflict a humiliating snub to the Congress by rejecting Sonia Gandhis first choice of Pranab Mukherjee for President and proposing instead in a dramatic twist Prime Minister Manmohan Singhs name for the post.
The suggestion that Congress should consider moving Singh to Rashtrapati Bhavan not just injected fresh complications into the Presidential stakes but suddenly exposed the UPAs vulnerability when its being accused of policy paralysis and is wracked by a growing unease that some change has to be brought within.
One thing looked clear,though: Banerjee and Yadav effectively opened up what had looked like a virtual one-horse (Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee) race for Rashtrapati Bhavan.
After a 30-minute meeting with Sonia Gandhi at 10 Janpath,Mamata told reporters: We had detailed discussions… Soniaji told me that she had held meetings with two to four allies and her first choice is Pranab Mukherjee and second choice is (Vice-President) Hamid Ansari.
She then promptly drove to Mulayam Singhs 16 Ashoka Road residence and less than an hour later both emerged from a meeting to make a dramatic announcement. We considered names of A P J Abdul Kalam,Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Somnath Chatterjee for Presidentship, the SP chief told reporters in a joint press conference with Mamata,adding they would appeal to all parties to support them.
The irony wasnt lost on anyone: for the last several weeks,Congress circles have been flaunting their increasing closeness to Mulayam as a weapon to keep Mamata in check.
After discussions,we have decided that we want a President who will lead the country with respect and dignity,and has thorough knowledge of the Constitution. These are our three choices,which we want all political parties to consider, Mamata added. Significantly,she chose to skip a meeting with Prime Minister Singh which he had sought with her later in the evening.
Political circles are interpreting the Trinamool-SP card as a clear case of allies getting back at the Congress for looking them down over the years. Mamatas longstanding bitter rivalry with Pranab Mukherjee is well known he was one of the reasons why she had to quit the Congress in 1997. The only way she could checkmate Congress choice of Mukherjee was to come up with a solid counter which came in Manmohan Singhs candidature. The other two names Kalam and Chatterjee are also being viewed as necessary. That of Kalam to introduce the NDA into the frame and further pressure the Congress and that of Chatterjee to neutralise any possible negative campaign in West Bengal for disallowing the ascent of a Bengali to Rashtrapati Bhavan.
By late evening,a stunned Congress leadership which is said to have told some of its allies that SP support was sewn up was scrambling to come up with a damage control strategy. Mamata is our ally and we will try to build a consensus, party general secretary Digvijay Singh told The Indian Express. There was no formal word,however,on the Prime Ministers candidature though efforts were made at an informal level by its senior leadership to dismiss speculation that the UPAs stability was being threatened and that there was no question of moving Prime Minister Singh.
In fact,so fractured is the party that there was no shortage of detractors of the PM who claimed that the Mamata-Mulayam act was part of an elaborate plan scripted by senior leaders in the Congress who have been able to convince the leadership that a regime change will help improve the governments bruised image. And that easing him out would create a vacancy for the Prime Ministers post. The fact that party spokesmen remained out of bounds provided more grist to this rumour mill.
Todays development is certain to pit allies within the UPA against or in favour of one or the other candidate. Parties like the DMK,NCP,RLD and NC have indicated support for Mukherjees candidature,saying that they would go along with any UPA candidate. But the division forced by the Mamata-Mulayam combine could prompt a rethink in them too. Reacting to the TMC-SP move,NCP leader Sharad Pawar said that all parties in the UPA would have to sit and consider the situation in the light of new developments and evolve a consensus on the Presidential candidate.
Watching keenly from the sidelines,the Opposition BJP attempted to fan the fire by calling an impromptu meeting of its top brass and discussing the three names proposed by TMC-SP. The NDA has already said it favours Kalams candidature,though the former President himself maintained that he does not want to be in the Presidential race unless there is consensus on his name.
The TMC-SP stand,though,makes the NDA even more important,particularly in the context of implications for government at the Centre.
In the electoral college with 10,98,882 vote value,Congress and its allies,including Trinamool,constitute the UPA and account for over 4.60 lakh vote value. BJP-led NDA has over 3.04 lakh vote value. The others,including parties like Samajwadi Party,BSP and the Left,have over 2.62 lakh vote value. Should the Trinamool and SP break away from the UPA to put up a candidate of their own and manage the support of NDA and anti-Congress parties like AIADMK,BJD and TDP,then the going could become a bit uneasy for Congress.
Clearly,the Presidential polls,coming as they do just as UPA 2 has hit the mid-term mark,have become a testing ground for future realignments with 2014 in mind. First,it was Jayalalithaa and Naveen Patnaik getting together to pitch for NCP leader PA Sangma and now with the Mamata-Mulayam combine,this has become about much more than who goes to Rashtrapati Bhavan.
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