Making the contest for Rashtrapati Bhavan more complex, Samajwadi Party (SP) chief, Mulayam Singh Yadav, and Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief and West Bengal chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, on Wednesday got together and shot at Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s hopes to become the President.
The chronology of the day’s events around the Presidential election went like this: Banerjee met Congress President Sonia Gandhi; came out to announce Mukherjee was Gandhi’s first choice for President, and Ansari the second; Banerjee called on Yadav; and then came the bombshell — The SP-TMC combine announced it favoured either Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, or former Lok Sabha speaker Somnath Chatterjee, or former President A P J Abdul Kalam, for the top job.
Between them, SP (67,931, or six per cent) and TMC (46,940, or four per cent) have just 10 per cent of the votes in the electoral college. But the two will hold the key in the Presidential election because the Congress has 3,30,868, or 30 per cent, while it needs 51 per cent of votes.
The price Congress has paid in its alliance with TMC
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Kalam has, in the past, said he would not be a candidate if there was to be a contest. Internally, the Congress believes there is no question of fielding the prime minister. And, Chatterjee is likely to get only Banerjee’s support. So, on Wednesday’s announcement could be seen as a way of two of the most trusted allies of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) to get their own back on the Congress, the dominant partner.
The motive of the two leaders is not hard to fathom. Yadav has launched Mission 2014 in Uttar Pradesh and announced the target for the next general election, whenever held, is 60 seats for his party from UP. So far as Banerjee is concerned, her personal antipathy for Mukherjee and the knowledge that the TMC vote base can expand only at the the Congress’ cost have led her to virtually veto Mukherjee’s name.
Other allies have recalibrated their positions on hearing the news. Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar, who had earlier said his party would go with the Congress choice for the President, now ‘suggests’ a consensus on the candidate may be better.
The dissonance has put up a mirror to the deep cleavages within UPA. Those names have been mentioned are yet to react. But, Mukherjee’s son, Abhijit, an MLA from Bengal, is believed to have confided to some supporters in Birbhum that his father may miss the bus yet again. He told Business Standard he did not want to say anything on this matter.
Sources in Kolkata said the Congress had sent feelers that in return for Chatterjee as vice-president, TMC should support Mukherjee for President. However, if the Congress would anger the Left and if two persons from the same state could become the President and Vice-President remain moot issues.
Conspiracy theorists say Banerjee was manipulated by a section of the Congress into rejecting Mukherjee, on whom the Congress was not keen, but didn’t know how to tell him. However, Defence Minister A K Antony had told supporters when he went to call on another ally, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, in Chennai several weeks ago, that he was the one who had gone with Mukherjee’s name. Political Advisor to Congress President Ahmed Patel had also indicated a few days ago that the Congress’ choice would be Mukherjee. This could be a calculated way to rule Mukherjee out — or another instance of the Congress underestimating Banerjee’s determination to get things done her way.
Top Congress leaders said they suspected an early election might be on the cards. The PM had been diminished because at least two of the UPA’s most powerful allies had made it publicly known that they thought he was expendable; and, if TMC, SP and – eventually – Jaganmohan Reddy joined forces, general elections might brought forward. An early election would be in the interest of all three.