Sometimes a switched-off cellphone can be more eloquent than the most garrulous motormouth exertions of party spokespersons. On that count, the deafening silence on Wednesday evening of highly voluble Congress leaders, who are never shy of appearing on television talk shows and pontificating on every subject under the sun, speaks volumes about the acute dilemma of the party after the bombshell dropped earlier in the evening by Mamata Banerjee and Mulayam Singh Yadav.
The bombshell came, first, in the form of the rejection of the two candidates for Presidency – Pranab Mukherjee and Hamid Ansari – that (Mamata Banerjee says) Sonia Gandhi proposed at a one-on-one meeting at 10, Janpath earlier in the afternoon. To add insult to injury, Mamata Banerjee and Mulayam Singh Yadav, appearing together at a joint press conference, suggested the name of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as one of their three candidates for the Presidency (along with APJ Abdul Kalam and Somnath Chatterjee).
In other words, at one fell stroke, Mamata Banerjee and Mulayam Singh, leaders of two key allies of the Congress, were teaming up to subject the three top leaders of the Congress – Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee and Sonia Gandhi – to the most embarrassing ritual humiliation in public by vetoing the Congress nominees for President, and expressing a manifest lack of confidence in the Prime Minister.
And, yet, there was no official response from Congress leaders. What can conceivably account for this thunderous sound of silence?
One possible explanation is that even senior Congress leaders were entirely clueless about how to read the move by Mamata and Mulayam. Was it, as conspiracy theories doing the rounds had it, an astute ploy by Sonia Gandhi to use the two allies to ease out the discredited Manmohan Singh from the Prime Minister’s chair – and simultaneously sabotage the presidential candidacy of Pranab Mukherjee, given that he doesn’t enjoy her confidence?
The theory – which a Firstpost analysis fleshed out late on Wednesday (here) – certainly sounds plausible. After all, there have been several accounts of how both Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi were believed to have calculated that Manmohan Singh had become a political liability and wanted him replaced (here). Rahul Gandhi‘s aides had even been planting stories in the media suggesting that the “yuvraj” was “disgusted” with Team Manmohan and had been “venting his dismay almost daily at the mess being created by the Manmohan Singh Ministry” (here).
Given that perception, any Congress leader who came out publicly defending the Prime Minister in response to the open challenge to his authority by Mamata and Mulayam would have been at risk of incurring Sonia Gandhi’s displeasure for interfering with her ‘master strategy’.
In a situation like that, it’s easy to understand why Congress leaders had switched off their cellphones and had modelled themselves on reclusive Trappist monks.
But it’s rather more likely that the Congress in its entirety – from Sonia Gandhi downwards – had been shellshocked by the Mamata-Mulayam joint gambit, which has comprehensively outplayed the Congress strategy, and particularly Sonia Gandhi’s moves to secure a life insurance for the UPA government by playing Mulayam and Mamata.
After all, only recently, at the third anniversary of the UPA-2 government, Mulayam Singh had been feted and pampered as a chief guest, even invited to the dais and given a seat at the high table along with Sonia Gandhi at dinner time. Sonia Gandhi had been extremely solicitous at dinner time, and Mulayam Singh even confided that evening that he had been offered much “samman” (respect). Congress leaders crowed that evening that now that they had Mulayam Singh on their side, they really didn’t need a cantankerous ally like Mamata Banerjee (here).
Even the Congress’ choice of its two candidates – Pranab Mukherjee and Hamid Ansari – was a cynical attempt to play Mamata against Mulayam. Mamata had been dead-set against Mukherjee’s candidacy, since she didn’t consider him enough of a “son of Bengal”; and Mulayam Singh had publicly voiced his discomfiture with seeing “naukarshah” (bureaucrats) like Ansari as President.
That divide-and-rule strategy has spectacularly backfired on the Congress. The coming together of Mamata and Mulayam represents the wholesale fallibility of the Congress – which realisation hasn’t yet dawned on its leaders – and the fact that it is no longer the centre, but disparate regional allies who constitute the real power in the alliance.
For sure, the Mamata-Mulayam gambit may have an element of bluff built into it. But by far the clearest message that the two leaders sent the Congress is that the Congress needs them for its political survival rather more than it is willing to acknowledge, and must be prepared to pay the right price for their support.
If not, they won’t shrink from humiliating – at one shot – the Prime Minister, the Finance Minister and the Congress president with their ‘veto’.
Mamata’s brinkmanship games with the Congress have a history, but how does one account for Mulayam Singh’s “treachery”? It appears that he still believes he hasn’t been compensated for bailing out the UPA-1 government in 2008 (at the time of the Indo-US nuclear deal). The price he sought then – a watering down and dismissal of the corruption cases against him – hasn’t yet been paid. With his son, Akhilesh Kumar, as Chief Minister in Uttar Pradesh, and with the cases coming up soon, this is last chance to force the Congress’ hand.
The cynical machinations of politics may ensure that the Congress may yet pay that price to secure its survival. After all, this isn’t the first time anti-corruption investigating agencies have been used as handmaidens of the ruling party.
But such a capitulation, taken together with the dramatic developments on Wednesday, show up Sonia Gandhi not as a master strategist but as politically inept. This time around, she has been comprehensively outplayed by Mulayam and Mamata. She is clearly no Chanakya in politics – or a Machiavelli in strategy. And the worst of it is that, the notion that the Mamata-Mulayam gambit was a Sonia Gandhi-inspired conspiracy to ease out Manmohan Singh and Pranab Mukherjee enjoys enormous traction, even within the Congress.
Where does this leave Manmohan Singh?
If the conspiracy theories are true, he does not enjoy the confidence of Sonia Gandhi, and his position as Prime Minister has become untenable.
But even if they aren’t, and Mamata and Mulayam were only acting in their own interest, it represents the emasculation of his authority to such an extent that a cynical game of ducks and drakes is being played with his head on the line. And, worse, in that moment of abject humiliation by his allies, his own party has been missing in action and has not uttered the faintest squeak of solidarity.
Either way, Manmohan Singh today is a vastly shrunken man. If he wishes to salvage even an ounce of his personal honour, he should resign and walk away – and leave the Congress to stew in its own juices.