The political impact of the United Progressive Alliance government’s decision to allow foreign direct investment will revolve around the answer to a simple question: what will Mulayam Singh do? The Samajwadi leader is already on record as saying his party — which extends outside support to the UPA — will not back the Congress in Parliament if its allies start deserting. But will he carry out his implied threat if West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who opposes FDI in retail, backs a no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the winter session? With Mulayam Singh adding his name to the crowd of Prime Ministerial contenders aspiring to succeed Dr. Singh after the next general election, the answer to these questions has become especially difficult. In 1996, the former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister came within a whisker of becoming Prime Minister and was pipped at the post by H.D. Deve Gowda, who himself was second choice to head the United Front Government after Jyoti Basu. In politics, a week is a long time and in the 16 years since Mr. Mulayam Singh’s unsuccessful bid, a whole new crop of potential Prime Ministers from different social segments has emerged, among them Rahul Gandhi, Nitish Kumar, J. Jayalalithaa and Mayawati, not to mention the half-dozen or so wannabes in the Bharatiya Janata Party. Besides, in recent days it has been rather difficult to figure out where exactly the SP leader stands.

Mr. Mulayam Singh’s quicksilver mood changes have seen him, by turns, seek the militant company of Ms. Banerjee, revert to the Congress as its supporter, and float the idea of an ever-elusive Third Front, with himself as leader, of course. Ahead of the recent presidential election, the SP chief joined hands with Ms Banerjee in rejecting Pranab Mukherjee’s name. Though the joint venture was a spectacular failure, the twosome have continued with their on-again, off-again collaboration. One big constraint is that Ms Banerjee and the Third Front are mutually exclusive. She cannot take membership of any front that has the Left parties and without the latter there cannot be a Third Front, which in any case seems very iffy what with no party in any hurry to sign up for it. For the SP to be taken seriously post-election, it would need to win 50-odd Lok Sabha seats from U.P., which is a tall order given the declining popularity of the Akhilesh Yadav government and the bridgeable three percentage point difference in vote share with the Bahujan Samaj Party. Mulayam’s best bet, then, might be to continue to dangle the carrot of support to the Congress, hoping no doubt to extract whatever legal concessions he can for himself and his family.

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