With Pranab Mukherjee’s election as the country’s next President being a foregone conclusion, the Congress is getting ready for the tasks it will have to get on with without him. There are indications that the Prime Minister wants to keep the Finance portfolio with himself, with a view to giving a push to the economic reforms which have been hanging fire. Pranab Mukherjee himself gave a hint of what could be in the offing when he said, in response to a question, that the PM was himself an eminent economist! Though there are several names doing the rounds for the next FM, there is feeling that if at all the PM opts to have a FM, it may be someone who will only be a ‘titular’ head.
Who will be the leader of the Lok Sabha is a tough one for the party. It will be difficult enough for anyone to step into the shoes of Pranab Mukherjee, given his stature, his knowledge of parliamentary affairs, and the respect he commands across the political spectrum. If Rahul Gandhi were to agree to become a Minister in Government, there would have been a push from the party for him to become the leader of the House. But that does not seem to be on the cards. The party has to choose from among its senior leaders, but will have to tread carefully and avoid those who might have scams tumbling out against them.
A massive shakeup in the party is supposed to be on the cards, to gear it for the general elections in 2014, or if they are held earlier. The more critical question which will face the party however is whether it goes back to a politics of alliances. Months before the 2004 polls, when the Congress had been routed in north Indian states, Sonia Gandhi had determinedly walked across to Ram Vilas Paswan’s house, and that was the beginning of a process of striking alliances with regional parties, undoing the party’s Pachmarhi policy of going it alone. Now, again, the Congress is faced with the question — will it have to shed Rahul Gandhi’s go-solo line, and instead work to retain its allies, and bring more on board?
While the NDA’s 2014 strategy would focus on creating a chemistry against the Congress at the popular level, the Congress, which has been weakened considerably in the last three years, will have to rely on arithmetic to come to its rescue — adding every percentage point of support to its side. The recent bypolls in Andhra Pradesh, where Jagan Mohan Reddy’s YSR Congress had a runaway success, is one more reminder of which way the wind is blowing. The way things are going in Andhra Pradesh, the Congress may find itself in a position where it has to tie up with Jagan Reddy’s party next time round, just as it had to shake hands in Maharashtra with the NCP, which had broken ranks with it.
The Congress may be compelled to strike alliances with Ram Vilas Paswan and Laloo Yadav in Bihar and with Mulayam Singh Yadav in UP in the 2014 polls. Earlier it was argued that there was no reason why Mulayam should go with the Congress, when he felt he could win 40-50 seats on his own in a Lok Sabha election. But now, with the possibility of Narendra Modi being projected as the face of the BJP, Mulayam could plump for a tie up with Congress to prevent the Muslim community from gravitating towards Congress to ward off Modi in a national election.
The Congress is keen to have the Samajwadi Party join the Government to lend it a measure of stability and end the so called policy paralysis —Mulayam has said that he has not been invited so far — but it will have to weigh what reaction it would evoke from Mayawati who supports the UPA from the outside.
By first going with Mamata, by taking a stand which provoked the Congress’ ire against the Trinamool chief, and then dumping her, the old warhorse Mulayam Singh Yadav has played his cards over the presidential issue in such a manner that it is he who was seen to be tilting the scales in favour of Pranab Mukherjee, and it is he who has suddenly become indispensable for the Congress.
The Congress has drawn comfort from the fact that it has had the support, inside and outside, of Mamata, Mulayam and Mayawati, and was in a position to offset one against the other, if any one of them became difficult. But if Mamata opts out — her continuation in the UPA will become untenable if she opposes the UPA’s official candidate for President, and already the West Bengal unit of the Congress has threatened to withdraw from her Government — the Congress’ space for maneuverability will reduce, and Mulayam Singh Yadav has shown that he is not a very reliable ally.
Though Congress leaders are spewing anger against Mamata Banerjee for opposing Pranab Mukherjee, and publicly wanting to send the Prime Minister packing, when her party is part of the government, it is in their interest to keep her in the UPA. Though a maverick, her presence is essential for the stability of the government in the short term, and for the long term objective of having as many allies as possible in 2014. The party has everything to gain from offering her a face saver to climb down from her present position, and it suits Mamata also to avoid isolation.
Neerja Chowdhury is a political and social commentator.