Sunday, June 17, 2012

M&M forced Sonia to change the script

By Swapan Dasgupta

Mamata Banerjee may well be pilloried by many for defying the rules of ethnic solidarity and trying her utmost to prevent the election of the first Bengali President of India.
However, had she not stepped out of 10 Janpath last Thursday afternoon and announced Sonia Gandhi’s shortlist to the world and then joined Mulayam Singh Yadav to proclaim an alternative slate, it is entirely possible that Pranab Mukherjee would have remained exactly where he was: as the Number Two man in a tottering Government rather than India’s First citizen. Indeed, had it not been for both Mamata and Mulayam, the country may have been weighing the implications of either Meira Kumar or Hamid Ansari in Rashtrapati Bhavan.
To many people, over-exposed to the ways of Lutyens’ Delhi, politics is all about closed door parleys, intrigue and conspiracies. Occasionally, however, as many great events of the past testify, politics follows the laws of unintended consequences.
It is now apparently clear — despite the inexplicable reluctance of the media to pursue the point — that by blurting out the gist of her conversation with the UPA chairperson, Mamata did not show her wanton disregard of the Umerta (the code that guides some people in southern Europe) as Ambika Soni so imperiously suggested on TV. On the contrary, she had sought and secured Sonia’s sanction for blurting out the two names to the media.
Mamata’s claim has not been seriously contested by the Congress. Why, therefore, was Sonia willing to let Mamata make the shortlist public? The answer was self-evident. Mamata’s opposition to Pranab babu — a consequence of rivalries rooted in the politics of West Bengal — was well known. So was the fact that she viewed Vice President Ansari with suspicion, not least because she sees him as too closely associated with the Left. Mamata must have made her deep reservations of the two names known to Sonia. Equally, she must have blurted out her preference for former President APJ Abdul Kalam. Under these circumstances, why did Sonia not insist that the discussions in 10 Janpath remain confidential?
Was Sonia trying to be too clever by half? Was she setting the mercurial Mamata loose to indicate that there was fierce opposition to Mukherjee from within his home State? Would the confusion of Mamata and Mulayam demanding wider consultations have given her the necessary elbow room to smuggle in a third name and, in the process, negate Pranab? After all, many in the Congress president’s charmed circle had let it be known that the Finance Minister was not the lady’s first choice.
Unfortunately for the Congress, not everything can be pre-scripted. It would be fair to say that no one in the Congress ever expected the Mamata-Mulayam list to include Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as the second preference — a gesture that was tantamount to ridicule. Neither did they ever contemplate that Mulayam would give his endorsement to Mamata’s insistence on Kalam. The 16-hour delay in the Congress responding to the Mamata-Mulayam bombshell was not calculated. It was the inevitable consequence of the Congress weighing the consequences of a sideshow that had gone horribly wrong. More to the point, the M&M show had exposed Sonia to the charge that she had botched up her responsibility to manage the presidential election — a charge that loyal Congressmen could never countenance.
What really triggered a panic in Congress circles was a growing fear that, encouraged by Mulayam’s support, Kalam would actually contest and transform the presidential contest into a battle for the UPA Government’s very existence. The Congress was aware that Kalam had kept the question of his candidature open-ended — an impression bolstered by publicity-seeking loudmouths associated with the NDA.
The Congress machinery works best when entrusted with the responsibility of managing politicians. Consequently, it undertook two separate campaigns. First, it put its entire weight behind an operation to detach Mulayam from Mamata. Presumably, this was done with a blend of threats (and the better informed know what they are) and inducements. Mulayam, who, unlike Mamata, is not always insistent on maximalist positions, duly obliged. His prompt endorsement of Pranab after the formal announcement of candidature effectively put an end to Kalam’s candidature.
Secondly, faced with the possibility of a real challenge and the likelihood of an erosion of faith in her own capabilities, Sonia had to fall back on a candidate who was guaranteed to win the maximum support across the board. Meira Kumar was a possibility but this meant alienating a man who had set his heart on Rashtrapati Bhavan. This, in turn, had the potential of triggering a new set of problems which the beleaguered Congress could not afford.
It is interesting to note that whereas the enlarged CWC had delegated the selection of the presidential candidate to Sonia, the aftermath of the M&M drama led to the re-involvement of the Congress Core Committee in the proceedings. Faced with a possibility of a minor muscle flexing by two parties escalating into a larger crisis, the Congress president was compelled to revert to a collegiate style of politics.
The outcome was advantageous for Pranab Mukherjee who will soon be President. It was beneficial to Manmohan Singh who secured his party’s resounding vote of confidence. For Sonia Gandhi, however, the happy ending was dissimilar to the one envisaged in the original script.
And, by way of a footnote, there remained one unanswered question: where was Rahul Gandhi when it all happened?

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