Mulayam, Mamata propose Manmohan, Kalam, Somnath as candidates
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her new political comrade, Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav, sent Lutyen's Delhi into a spin on Wednesday evening after they announced a list of three candidates for the Presidency that included the name of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh – the other two were the former President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and the former Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee.
This was barely an hour after Ms. Banerjee revealed to a battery of TV cameras outside 10 Janpath that Congress president Sonia Gandhi had told her that Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Vice-President Hamid Ansari, in that order, were her party's choices for the next incumbent of Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Understandably, the introduction of Dr. Singh's name has led to wild speculation in political circles, ranging from talk about a “fixed match” — that the Congress wants to change the face of a government that has been battered by financial scandals and inability to control prices — to trying to fathom the meaning of the Banerjee-Yadav offensive.
There was total silence at the time of writing from both the Congress and the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) with most senior leaders switching off their phones. There was no official statement clarifying the position of Dr. Singh as the Congress' political managers went into a huddle, working the phones with their allies to recalculate the numbers.
However, while Congress sources The Hindu spoke to appeared taken aback by the Banerjee-Yadav announcement, they all stressed that it was inconceivable that Ms. Gandhi would conspire with Mr. Yadav and Ms. Banerjee to rid the government of Dr. Singh. But whatever the circumstances, the announcement has embarrassed the Congress and placed Dr. Singh in a false position, with talk that the allies don't trust him to continue as Prime Minister.
For, after the Prime Minister's name was introduced into the presidential race, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar, who had earlier indicated support for Mr. Mukherjee, said, “The UPA will have to work on a consensus candidate in the light of the TMC-SP proposing the PM as one of their choices for President…A way out will have to be found.''
Of the Congress' major allies, only the Dravida Munnetra Kazhgham (DMK) has said that it will back the Congress' choice for President and that it is happy with Dr. Singh continuing as Prime Minister.
Clearly, the Congress will now have to rethink its strategy on the presidential election. It can either push Mr. Mukherjee's name and call Ms. Banerjee's bluff, or it could go back to the drawing board. What the party will do, party sources said, will hinge on the numbers they can still muster.
Of course, here, the Banerjee-Yadav duo's announcement is being read in political circles as a direct challenge to the Congress and Ms. Gandhi. By muddying the political waters, the two leaders could be, Congress sources said, trying to ensure a contest that the party could lose. And if that were to happen, that would spell the demise of the UPA government and elections, something that would suit the Trinamool Congress and the Samajwadi Party: both parties have in the last one year won impressive victories in West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. The earlier the next general elections the greater their chances of winning a majority of the Lok Sabha seats in their respective States.
For Ms. Banerjee, her new-found friendship with Mr. Yadav also removes the possibility of the SP replacing the Trinamool in the UPA, something that has been considered over the last six months, with the former blocking a range of Congress political initiatives. Indeed, she has been in constant touch of late with Mr. Yadav on the Presidential election. Together, the two parties hold 10.6 per cent of the votes in the electoral college. Mr. Yadav's reasons for joining forces with Ms. Banerjee, Congress sources say, could be that he is unhappy that the disproportionate assets case pending against him has not been sorted out yet.
Earlier in the day, an SP leader told The Hindu that his party rejected the names suggested by Ms. Gandhi, even as Mr. Yadav appealed to all political parties to support one of the candidates of their choice. No reasons were given for not accepting the Congress nominees.
After the SP and Trinamool made their dramatic announcement at a crowded press conference at Mr. Yadav's residence, Ms. Banerjee replied in the negative when asked whether she had mentioned any of these names to Ms. Gandhi when she met her on Wednesday. She said they emerged after her 45-minute-long meeting with Mr. Yadav. Asked who the first choice of the duo was, Mr. Singh asserted, “There is no priority.''