Ajith Vijay Kumar
The Congress never saw it coming. Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mamata Banerjee stunned everyone by naming Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as one among their three choices for the next President of India.
Looking at the sequence of events – Mamata meeting Mulayam prior and after her talks with Sonia Gandhi – the announcement by the powerful regional satraps appears to be a well calibrated move.
To begin with, by naming Prime Minister as their presidential choice, they have openly questioned his continuation in South Block. Reports claimed that Standard and Poor’s grim outlook on Indian economy came in handy for them to put a question mark on Manmohan Singh.
But the real reason seems to be more political than Manmohan Singh’s capability to steer Indian economy out of the red.
Mamata and Mulayam understand the Congress’ reluctance for the ‘big’ shake up – Rahul Gandhi taking over the reins of the government.
By suggesting a change at 7 Race Course Road, the duo had tried to put Congress in a fix, that too at a time when Manmohan Singh has himself indicated that he wishes to continue, at least for now. The Congress has also openly come out in his support.
Their calculation appeared to be centred on creating an atmosphere conducive for snap general elections. Mulayam is smug in the belief that he has Uttar Pradesh under his belt, and Mamata has drawn strength from the recent victory in municipal polls in West Bengal.
They may have calculated the other possibility too: Congress biting the bullet and replacing Manmohan Singh with Rahul to avoid snap polls. The argument being – if Akhilesh can take over in UP, why not Rahul at the Centre?
If that were to happen, then Rahul would have had to battle strong anti-incumbency in the run up to 2014 General Elections and they hoped to end up as the real beneficiaries. However, neither the Congress nor Rahul himself would want to start on a weak wicket – Akhilesh took over after wining UP.
More importantly, what was the alternative?
Given Gandhi Parivar’s long standing reluctance to trust Pranab for the top job –which arose from the erudite Dada’s biggest folly of having had pushed his candidature for PM post Indira Gandhi’s death – the game was set.
Rahul is not ready to take over as PM, Pranab is not a choice; they have put Sonia in a spot.
And by writing off Manmohan Singh as PM, they also hope to earn a talking point. “We had said in 2012, remove PM and save Indian economy…” they would jeer - perfect plan to disown anti-incumbency in 2014.
All the factors suggest that Mulayam and Mamata have a bigger game plan than ‘Manmohan as President’.
Of their other two choices, Somnath Chatterjee is a clever move aimed at blunting any attack on Mamata for opposing fellow Bengali Pranab.
Moreover, Somnath as President would be Mamata’s way of rubbing it in to the Left, which stands decimated after losses in West Bengal and Kerala.
The Congress would also have wanted to pay back Somanth for favouring the government on the issue of nuclear deal, had it not been for the fact that Pranab had amply made his desire clear to occupy Rashtrapati Bhavan.
If the choice is between Pranab and Somnath, then the Congress has no option but to support Pranab.
Their third choice, APJ Abdul Kalam, seems to have been named only to address Mulayam’s concerns about opposing a Muslim in Hamid Ansari.
The Congress won’t support him either – if they wanted, he could have got a second term in 2007.
The battle lines are drawn and there is no clear winner at the moment – perfect time for a black horse to emerge.
In a way, it is not about who would be the next President of India, it’s more centred on the next occupant of South Block and everybody understands that. Now, or in 2014.