Frictions within the UPA patchwork alliance, principally between the Congress and the Trinamool Congress, have been dragging on for so long that the frequent skirmishes between them no longer make the headlines.
Those strains were pushed to the limit last month when TMC leader Mamata Banerjee sought to whip up a typhoon over the Presidential election with a “cameo” performance in New Delhi: during those three days, she rubbished the Congress’ choice of Pranab Mukherjee as its first candidate, and suggested, along with Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav, three alternative names. One of those names was that of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a political slight that was effectively a vote of no-confidence in him.
Mamata Banerjee‘s brief political thandav ended, of course, ended in ignominious defeat, with Mulayam Singh Yadav ditching her and backing the Congress in double-quick time: but although the wounded Bengal Tigress may have retreated to her den to recuperate, she has lost none of her feistiness. The fact that the Central government has agreed to give Uttar Pradesh a special package, while studiously ignoring her repeated demands for one such for her State must be particularly grating.
Political observers reckon that the fact that the two parties did not part ways even after the sharp differences over the Presidential election is a sign that they may muddle along. The Congress has signalled that it is still counting on the TMC’s support for Pranab Mukherjee‘s candidacy for the post of President. And although the Paschim Banga unit of the Congress has been straining at the leash, wanting to part ways with the TMC at the State level, the central leadership of the Congress has been counselling patience.
But beneath the surface, political undercurrents suggest that the Congress is working on a grand plan to ensure its survival in the event that circumstances compel a forceful political divorce with the TMC. But beyond the immediate need for the UPA 2 government to survive, the Congress is also propelled by the consideration that if it plays its cards right, it could perhaps reshape political alliances in a manner that ensures it returns to power in 2014 (or whenever elections are held) with the support of the Left parties.
Today’s meeting of the UPA, which is likely to endorse the UPA’s choice of Hamid Ansari as its candidate for a second term as Vice-President, could play a small part in widening the rift between the Congress and the TMC, and in allowing the Congress and the Left to find some common ground, which can be leveraged politically at a later date.
Ansari had been elected as Vice-president the last time around with the support of the Left parties. That alone gives Mamata Banerjee reason enough to reject his candidacy. And in fact, the TMC has already indicated that it will oppose Ansari, and instead propose alternative names – perhaps Gopal Gandhi or former MP Krishna Bose, who is Subhas Chandra Bose’s niece. Railway Minister and TMC leader Mukul Roy will attend the UPA meeting today, and will likely formally oppose Ansari’s candidacy.
The Left parties are naturally delighted at being given an opportunity to exploit the political differences between the Congress and the TMC. To widen that rift, they have given themselves an alibi to back Ansari: he is, they argue, not a “Congressman”, and to that extent, an acceptable candidate. Even the CPI, which opposed Pranab Mukherjee’s candidacy for the Presidency, is inclined to support Ansari.
For the Congress, this provides a window of opportunity to shape the transactional political congruence over the Vice-presidential election into something that is more durable – perhaps with an eye on the next general election.
As of today, the political landscape is hopelessly divided, and for all the loss of political goodwill on the part of the Çongress, the Opposition, and principally the BJP, have thus far failed to capitalise on the UPA’s governance failings and the monumental corruption scandals. As of now, everything points to a hung Parliament. The BJP-led NDA may under certain circumstances emerge as the single largest pre-poll political formation, but may still need the support of centrist and even borderline left-leaning parties to form a government.
Simultaneously, other political developments are working to the Congress’ advantage. The ongoing debate within the BJP over the merits (or otherwise) of projecting Narendra Modi as its candidate for Prime Ministership has proved deeply polarising, and has already unleashed a process of creative destruction in the larger political landscape. Leaders like Nitish Kumar have openly opposed the efforts to project Modi, going so far as to suggest that his party would walk out of the NDA if push came to shove.
It is in those circumstances – of a hung Parliament where the NDA is short of a majority – that the Congress perhaps calculates that it can count on the support of the Left parties and leaders like Nitish Kumar and perhaps even a pampered Mulayam Singh Yadav to advance its political fortunes and perhaps even return to power.
It can always count on the narrative on the need to keep the “communal BJP” out of power to appeal to the Left parties and to leaders like Nitish Kumar and Mulayam Singh. After all, it’s worked in the past. And since the Left’s fantasy of a Third Front has gained absolutely no traction, and it has been reduced to a rump of a political formation, it too could use the lifeline thrown by the Congress – and go back to a time when it was able to influence policies at the Centre with frequent threats of blackmail.
All this is, of course, still a bit of a long shot: many things have to fall in place for those political alignments to take shape. But clearly the choice of Ansari as VP is one small roll of the dice that the Congress calculates will reshape the state of play and allow the congruence between the Left and the Congress to find greater resonance.
That’s a feel-good sentiment from which the Congress can hope to harvest much more political goodwill in the event of a hung Parliament.