If Mamata Banerjee’s planned coup against the Congress in league with Mulayam Singh Yadav looks like coming unstuck, it would be because the fleeting political alliance would never have worked for the latter.
The common point that brought them together was that both want an early Lok Sabha poll to increase their seats in the Lok Sabha. But while Mamata probably assumes that she does not need the Congress in West Bengal, Mulayam cannot be so sanguine about Uttar Pradesh, especially since the voteshare difference between the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Mayawati’s BSP is very small.
After the March assembly elections, Mulayam Singh won 224 seats on just about 29.13 percent of the popular vote. Mayawati got 80 seats despite being just three percent behind him with a 25.91 percent vote. The Congress, with 11.65 percent got 28 seats and the BJP, with 15 percent, got 47 seats.
What this suggests is that Mayawati is far from being a spent force, and if she teams up — even if it is a minor seat-sharing arrangement with BJP or Congress — she can cross the Samajwadi Party vote and gain more seats in a Lok Sabha election.
Thus, even though Mulayam Singh may want an early Lok Sabha poll, he has no reason to antagonise the Congress to the point where it may end up in the arms of Mayawati.
Anyone watching the body language of Mulayam Singh and Mamata the other day, when they announced their three choices – APJ Abdul Kalam, Manmohan Singh and Somnath Chatterjee for president – would have noticed that Mulayam was most happy about Kalam. The other two are likely to have been Mamata’s candidates.
The moot point is: why did Mulayam Singh even agree to be bamboozled by Mamata on rattling the Congress on its presidential choices?
Of course, there could be a simple explanation: a belligerent Mamata is not easy to cross, and he could have nodded agreement half-heartedly to give himself more time to think after she was gone. However, upto a point it did suit him to rattle the Congress, too, since what the joint press conference did was make Mulayam Singh even more critical to the UPA’s future, assuming Mamata is on her way out.
What Mamata’s googly has achieved is get the Congress in panic mode: it has pushed up the value of Mulayam Singh for the UPA, and it has probably added to the longevity of Manmohan Singh’s in the PM’s post. Once Mamata openly challenged Sonia’s primacy in deciding who is to be PM, Sonia had no option but to emphasise he will stay in the job.
Mulayam Singh and Manmohan are the main gainers from Mamata’s unexpected intervention in the presidential sweepstakes.
But where does Mulayam Singh go from here? And how does it help him to humour the Congress and avoid a mid-term poll?
The answers have to be sought in UP and Mulayam Singh’s own ambitions. After the Samajwadi’s big win in Uttar Pradesh this March, Mulayam installed his son Akhilesh as Chief Minister – giving rise to speculation that he may want to be PM after the next general elections. Given the Congress' relative decline in public opinion polls, there is a strong possibility of a 1996 kind of situation where the regional parties could throw up a prime minister.
In this scenario, Mulayam Singh would be one natural candidate if he has, say, 40-45 MPs with him. But with less than 30 percent of the popular vote, he will not be anywhere near that figure, especially with Mayawati snapping at his heels.
To get a big share of seats in UP, Mulayam Singh may need either a tacit or direct alliance with another party – which can only be the Congress. A formal Samajwadi-Congress seat-sharing arrangement (maybe at 60:40 or 65:35 seat-sharing ratio) will help the combine sweep the polls since together they have 42 percent vote share.
This will give the SP 40-45 seats, and the Congress around 20-25, especially since an alliance would clearly sweep the minority vote.
For the Congress, extra seats from UP would be welcome since it is likely to lose badly in Andhra Pradesh and some more states.
Clearly, both Mulayam Singh and Congress, despite being wary of guarding their bases in UP, need each other for their own reasons.
Before the last Assembly election, Mulayam Singh, in fact, threw a bombshell when he noted that for him the Congress was not an untouchable. Even though it was clear during the election campaign on the SP was going to do well, even Mulayam could not be sure. He wanted to keep his Congress alliance options open and said: "There is a wave in favour of SP, which is going to form the next government in the state...(but) If I see BJP coming to power, our party can support Congress in the state to prevent communal forces.''
Even at the height of the UP campaign, Mulayam Singh thought he needed the Congress. Against this backdrop, it does not make sense for him to put himself out on a limb to back Mamata’s agenda because she can do nothing for him in UP, but the Congress can.
In a short while, we will know if he is willing to risk so much for saving Mamata the blushes. Mamata has just made Mulayam Singh’s position the strongest among regional forces, but this needs him to ditch Mamata for pursuing his larger ambitions. It may also mean ditching Abdul Kalam's candidature for the presidency.