After three days of intense back-room politics, which saw a slice of skulduggery, truckloads of treachery and barrelloads of back-stabbing, Pranab Mukherjee finally secured on Friday the nomination as the UPA candidate for the Presidency.
With most of the Congress’ allies and leading opposition parties, including the BJP, backing his candidature, his election, it now appears, will be a breeze. Mamata Banerjee still says that the “game isn’t over”, but it sounds more like the bluster of a defeated warrrior-queen. Her open rebellion against – and humiliation of – the Congress, momentarily backed by Mulayam Singh Yadav, may have whipped up a political tempest and had the Delhi durbar agog for three riveting days, but her game, for now, is up. The Bengal tigress has retreated to her den to lick her wounds.
But strikingly, Pranab-da had to overcome opposition from not just the Kolaveri Didi. Piecing together the events of the past three days, one gets a sense of the political intrigues that were in play and the high hurdles he had to cross – even within his own party. It’s a riveting story of, well, politics as usual.
It is now becoming abundantly clear that although Sonia Gandhi had (reportedly) proposed Pranab Mukherjee‘s name as the party’s “first choice”, followed by Hamid Ansari, she was pushing rather more for Ansari than for Mukherjee, like a conjuror performing a card trick.
Political columnist Sheela Bhatt reports, citing an unidentified confidante of Pranab Mukherjee that “until the last minute, Mukherjee doubted if he would get Sonia’s support.” The Congress, she adds, was trying to make Ansari look more attractive vis-a-vis Mukherjee. “Till the morning of June 13, Ansari was given enough indication that Congress leaders would find some way to pacify Mukherjee if the finance minister was denied the Presidency.”
Columnist Ashok Malik writes, citing Trinamool Congress sources, that Congress political strategist and Sonia Gandhi‘s aide Ahmed Patel may have explicitly given a signal to Mamata. “Sonia was seen as reluctantly agreeing to Pranab as president,” writes Malik. “A Trinamool politician close to Mamata insists Ahmed Patel, the Congress president’s key aide, told him on 12 June that, ‘We will not be unhappy if you oppose Pranab.’”
Mulayam Singh Yadav too got the impression that Sonia Gandhi was not keen on Pranab’s candidature. In The Telegraph, JP Yadav reports that Mulayam Singh Yadav had on Wednesday asked him whether Sonia Gandhi was at all serious about seeing Pranab Mukherjee as President.
Why did Mulayam Singh Yadav get that impression? The paper reports, citing Samajwadi Party sources, that Mulayam Singh was all along in favour of nominating Mukherjee, but when Mamata quoted Sonia Gandhi as saying that Ansari was the Congresss’ second choice, his political antennae began to flash warning signals.
“Mulayam interpreted the multiple choices attributed to Sonia as a clear sign that the Congress chief was not ‘serious’ about Mukherjee,” the paper notes. Since the Congress and Sonia Gandhi had not in over a month referred to Mukherjee’s name in public as a candidate – despite intense speculation on the subject – Mulayam Singh’s suspicions on the Congress’ intentions became stronger.
Even 10 days ago, reports the Indian Express, Mulayam Singh Yadav asked Sonia Gandhi about the names doing the rounds, but received no indication of whom she had in mind.
He reasoned that Sonia Gandhi was surreptitiously pushing for Pranab’s name to be shot down by Mamata, upon which Ansari’s name would sail through. And since Mulayam Singh had a deep-seated aversion to seeing a “bureaucrat” like Ansari in the Rashtrapati Bhavan – and had even gone public with his views – he felt he had to tactically oppose Sonia Gandhi’s plans. Which is why he aligned himself with Mamata Banerjee on that fateful Wednesday afternoon press conference – at which both the leaders put forward three alternative names, including that of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
But that very night, stung by the rebellion by regional party leaders – and the “indecorous” disclosure of the names of the Congress’ candidates, Sonia Gandhi met Mulayam Singh, reports the Indian Express. Nothing was concluded at that meeting: both leaders merely put forward their grievances about the other. But on Thursday, although Mulayam Singh met Mamata again when she called on him, he did not present himself for a photo-op when she left his house. That was the first sign that Mulayam Singh was distancing himself from Mamata.
Sonia Gandhi and Mulayam met again on Thursday evening; by then, the Congress had been forced to defend Pranab-da’s candidature publicly.
In the end, Pranab-da may owe his (almost certain) Presidency to the “revolt” by Mamata and Mulayam rather more to the determination of Sonia Gandhi or the Congress to see his nomination through.
In his brief speech while accepting the nomination for Presidency, Pranab-da was all grace, and thanked Sonia Gandhi for her support. But in the political diary that he scrupulously maintains, he will likely record some candid thoughts on his state of mind in the three days that shook Presidential poll politics in Dehi. He will have reason to believe that when he becomes President, it will have been despite Sonia Gandhi – not because of her.
As a political insider told Sheela Bhatt, Pranab-da believes he made it on his own steam. “Dada apne dum pe Rashtrapati pad ke ummeedvar bane hai (Pranabda has become the Presidential nominee on his own strength),” the insider told her.
It may have all ended well for Pranab-da and for the Congress, but it will be hard to overlook the fact that when it came right down to it, the knives were out for him. And he owes his Presidency rather more to Mamata and Mulayam’s revolt, which forced the Congress’ hand, than to leaders of his own party, who were ready to cut him loose.