Mulayam holds the key

Presidential election

It must be a bit galling for Mrs Sonia Gandhi to kowtow before a politician who sabotaged her personal bid to lead a Congress coalition government in 1997, and then minced her son Rahul’s ambitions in 2012. But a political heart pumps both warm and cold blood.

The best politicians park emotions in an attic when there is the business of give and take to be done. Mrs Gandhi is a good politician, and memory no longer has a place in her equations with Mulayam Singh Yadav. She cannot win the July elections for Rashtrapati Bhavan without his support.

Mulayam Singh has paid a sharp price for standing in Mrs Gandhi’s way. His party has supported the UPA government consistently since 2004 without being permitted a share in power. He has been humiliated at ritual dinners. He set aside what hurt he might have felt and supported the passage on the Indo-US nuclear bill in the Lok Sabha in 2008, preventing an early general election.

There was much talk of an appropriate reward, possibly the defence ministry for him. Nothing happened. After 2009 the Congress had less need of his support, so there was little question of any quid pro quo. But after his overwhelming victory in this year’s UP Assembly elections, his help is once again crucial to Congress survival. If the Congress candidate for President cannot win, the UPA government in Delhi will lose its last claim to credibility.

The best deal for the Congress would be to get Mulayam’s votes in return for an IOU. Since secrecy is unknown in Indian politics, Lucknow is already humming with talk that Congress has offered Mulayam Singh Yadav the vice president’s position tomorrow in return for his support today. The vice president’s election is scheduled for August.

The earlier buzz was that A K Antony would be elevated to President and Mulayam given the defence portfolio. But that has dimmed with the sudden daubs in Antony’s saintly image after the fiasco with the Army chief V K Singh. If nothing else, this indicates the mercurial shifts that occur at a time of turmoil.

You can trust tomorrow if you can be reasonably certain about what tomorrow will bring. But with circumstances lurching around like a raft in high waves, give and take must occur at the same time. Ajit Singh, who is now civil aviation minister, was smart enough to insist on being sworn in before he did the electoral deal in Uttar Pradesh. If he had waited for the results, he would still be waiting.

Trust deficit

The problem between Mulayam and Congress is a trust deficit. More specifically, Mulayam does not trust the Congress, and it is only political compulsion that keeps him within the UPA. His support base will not permit him to join the BJP-led NDA, and an alliance with the Left within a Third Front makes little sense.

It will not gather much moss at the national level,  and the Left has nothing to offer in Uttar Pradesh. It is a Congress presumption that Mulayam has nowhere else to go, and that while he may feint and twist he has little option except to queue up behind the Congress in any stand-off up between UPA and NDA.

That is a mistake. A seeming dead-end can bring out the creative in a skilful driver seeking a way out. There are all sorts of deviations that open alternative routes. Mulayam, for instance, could place a simple but eminently logical condition: if the Congress wants his support, it will have to consult him on the candidate. Five years ago, Sonia Gandhi pulled out an unknown rabbit out of an obscure hat at the last minute, and we got what we have.

One of the more amazing facts is that Congress does not seem to trust its most obvious, and ablest, candidate, Pranab Mukherjee. Pranab Mukherjee has everything on his side, except the support of his party.

It would be a fitting pinnacle to an extraordinary career. His personality, and the respect he commands in Parliament and the country, would ensure a reasonably easy victory. His election would stabilise the UPA, albeit only until it managed to destabilise itself once again. Mamata Banerjee, whose alliance can never be taken for granted, could hardly object to the most distinguished Bengali of this generation.

Stalwarts like Mulayam would be comfortable with Mukherjee in a way they could never be with those of far lesser stature. But the Congress seems to believe that Pranab Mukherjee should always be put in charge of cooking the meal but never  given a seat at the head table. There is a second distinguished candidate, vice president Hamid Ansari, but his disadvantage in these partisan times is that he does not belong to any party.

Mulayam Singh Yadav could make the running in the Presidential stakes by proposing Pranab Mukherjee’s name  and then dare the Congress to reject it. The debate would move outside the confines of curtains and enter public space. And about time too.

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