NEW DELHI ~ As the political tempest over the question of its presidential nominee recedes, the Congress party has begun to absorb an uncomfortable truth. Mulayam Singh Yadav, who kept himself in the eye of that storm, first by aligning with Mamata Banerjee and then by leaving her in the lurch, has managed to turn the race for Rashtrapati Bhavan into a prequel to the next Lok Sabha election. The damage that Mulayam’s machinations have caused the UPA-II appears irreparable, and it is widely believed that even if the Congress succeeds in wooing Banerjee back, India’s ruling alliance will never be its old self again.
Such a blow to the UPA’s cohesion was perhaps exactly what the Samajwadi Party (SP) chief had in mind. There are signs that he has begun gearing his party up for a snap general election. Though SP general secretary Ram Gopal Yadav has tried to deflect all talk of the party’s ulterior motives, saying it is “not in favour of mid-term polls as that would put an extra burden on the State exchequer”, it is an open secret that Netaji (as Mulayam is called by his supporters) is not interested in waiting till 2014, which is when the next Lok Sabha polls are due.
The truth is that the SP has already initiated the process of selecting candidates for the Lok Sabha. On 11 June, merely days before Mamata and Mulayam touched off the aforementioned presidential storm, the central parliamentary board of the SP had held a meeting in Delhi and decided to send observers to all Lok Sabha constituencies in UP, except the 22 that it currently holds, to identify candidates. “The party has received over 900 applications for Lok Sabha seats in UP,” Ram Gopal Yadav told mediapersons after that meeting. “The parliamentary board today decided to send observers to 58 Lok Sabha seats where we do not have MPs, for selecting suitable candidates. Observers will send their reports to the party leadership within seven days after their visits.” The party also decided in the meeting that none of its current MLAs would be given a ticket for a parliament seat.
Mulayam knows that his party could ride the momentum that gave it its massive victory in the UP Assembly polls a few months ago. Some of that force may be lost by 2014, since two years is long enough for the effect of anti-incumbency to kick in. It is this calculation that has prompted the party to not just draw up a list of contestants, but also mount a publicity blitzkrieg that projects Mulayam as its prime ministerial candidate. According to SP sources, orders have already been issued for hundreds of thousands of posters, stickers, badges and other publicity material with images of Mulayam waving to a huge crowd with Parliament as his backdrop.
In UP, the SP won 224 of the Assembly’s 403 seats. Now, in case of an early general election, say party insiders, it could aim to capture 50-60 Lok Sabha seats and thus emerge as India’s third largest party in Parliament after the Congress and BJP. Such a scenario would give Mulayam a huge advantage over all other regional parties in the country. At present, the SP has just 22 MPs from UP, a state that accounts for 80 such seats in all.
What gives this plan credence is the fact that Mulayam has never hidden his prime ministerial ambitions. Soon after his party’s unprecedented victory in the UP Assembly polls, he had gently chided his supporters at Etawah, his home district, for not doing their part well enough. “You people would have to observe discipline if you want to see me as Prime Minister,” he had told a visibly over-excited crowd.
That is the context in which Mulayam’s game ahead of India’s presidential poll is best analysed. For now, he has thrown his lot in with the Congress candidate, Pranab Mukherjee. But the SP chief might well be expecting an invitation to form a government—if neither the UPA nor NDA can muster the numbers—from the same Mukherjee not too far in the future.
Suspicious of Mulayam’s intentions, the Congress has started showing signs of desperation to revive a working relationship with Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress. The public snubbing of senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh on 18 June by the High Command for attacking the Trinamool Chief is just one indication of this desperation. Many more indications may be apparent in the days ahead. However, Banerjee has had a huge victory too, in West Bengal, and she is also eager for an early Lok Sabha poll. On that count, at least, her interests are no different from the man who left her in the lurch.