Wednesday 13 June, a hot Delhi afternoon. The day began desultorily enough with the morning news full of doom and gloom about the economy. Azim Premji had just said we are a country without a leader. Narayana Murthy had just lamented that India’s image had suffered badly. Corporate leaders had said this is the end of the India story, the end of reforms, the beginning of decline and the long hurtle towards a 1991-type crisis.
Politics continued on the presidential elections. A Mumbai resident grumbled on Twitter: does anyone beyond the Delhi media care about who the new president is going to be?
But what’s this? Why is the temperature rising a little on this long hot afternoon? Rumbustious Didi from Kolkata, Mamata Banerjee, and former wrestler and Lohia-ite netaji Mulayam Singh Yadav suddenly explode onto the TV screens. Mamata Banerjee emerges from her meeting with Sonia Gandhi and marches towards the media. “The Congress,” announces Mamata, “has given me their choice of presidential candidates. Pranab is their first choice, Ansari (Hamid Ansari, Vice President) is second choice. ”
Shock gripped the gathered journalists. The long awaited Congress presidential choices being publicly announced by Mamata Banerjee? But where were the Congress spokespersons? Where was Rashid Alvi? Where was Renuka Chowdhary? Wasn’t anyone from the Congress going to speak on their own candidates? And isn’t it a bit humiliating for the Vice President to be referred to casually as “Ansari, the second choice”?
An excited frisson ran through newsrooms. Bored hacks suddenly sat up straight. News crews jumped to the ready. Something was afoot.
An hour later, once again, the anti- Communist heroine from Bengal, and the seasoned warhorse from Uttar Pradesh faced the cameras. The sun beat down mercilessly. The hot afternoon was now fraught with expectation. Mamata and Mulayam publicly rejected the Congress candidates. ‘No’ to Pranab Mukherjee. ‘No’ to Hamid Ansari. And lo and behold they announced their own: APJ Abdul Kalam, Somnath Chatterjee and ..wait for this ..Manmohan Singh!
The hot afternoon plunged into turmoil. Reporters raced to their OB spots. Editors- in-chief dashed to studios. Shocked analysts tried to remain calm. Two of the UPA’s biggest allies, allies on whom the UPA depends for survival, had just publicly declared that they felt Manmohan Singh would make a better president than prime minister! They had almost voiced a vote of no confidence in the prime minister himself. This was not a private strategy meeting. This was not a backdoor deal between the Congress and UPA allies. This was a public announcement that Manmohan Singh now belongs to the decorative Mughal gardens and not at the heart of government.
TV tickers turned to cricket metaphors. This was a googly, a doosra.
Mulayam and Mamata had cocked the veritable snook at Sonia Gandhi and embarrassed 10 Jan Path in public. Not only do we not accept your choices, Soniaji, we have three of our own and one of them is the PM. Take that!
Wednesday afternoon became a game changer afternoon. The message went out: Take note, citizens of India. The president of India will not be decided by the Delhi power elite after all. The president of India will not be decided by Sonia Gandhi after all. Oh no. The president of India will be decided and appointed only with the approval of Lucknow and Kolkata and (if it comes to that) Chennai and Bhubaneswar and Patna. This is a symbol that as far as politics is concerned, this the end of the rule of the Centre and the beginning of the rule of the States.
The Mumbai resident who asked why the presidential election is important had his answer. The presidential elections have become a test for the UPA. General Elections could take place far sooner than we think. None of this is about who will be the president. Its all about who will be the new Prime Minister, this year, in 2013 or in 2014.
On the face of it, there can be no more contrasting personalities than Sonia Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee, although both are formidable politicians and autocratic in their own ways. The first, an inaccessible family bahu, upholder of the divine right to rule, the second a firebrand, “vagabond” (her own words) , a redoubtable grassroots leader, born without any spoons let alone silver ones.
Sonia Gandhi never gives interviews, never communicates. Instead she remains cocooned in the corridors of 10 Jan Path, journeying out to address vast gatherings of “the people” in Real India. Mamata Banerjee constantly talks to the media (sometimes to her own disadvantage), constantly interacts with people of all hues and answers all her own smses from thousands of people every day. For Sonia Gandhi, the candidate for Rashtrapati Bhavan must be someone to be rewarded for loyalty like Pratibha Patil. For Mulayam and Mamata the President is about showing off their political strength and maximising political opportunity.
For Mulayam and Mamata this is not a race for Raisina Hill, it is for the ultimate political prize. Forcing a change in government and forcing early general elections carry the chance of vastly augmenting their own Lok Sabha tallies, given that they have both just won big victories. For Mamata and Mulayam, the continued existence of UPA2 brings no political advantage at all.
Round One in the race for rashtrapati has gone to Mamata Banerjee and Mulayam Singh Yadav; Round Two could well play out differently. But this is no longer about who becomes India’s next president. The dramatic political developments on the hot Wednesday afternoon have shockingly revealed, just how exhausted and weak the Congress has become and how pathetically limited the writ of Delhi now is. Illustrated in moving 24*7 television images the public has seen for itself that political power now lies squarely with powerful regional satraps like Didi and Netaji who confidently face the cameras in the heat of the mid-day sun, even as a detached isolated Congress remains mutely shuttered in air-conditioned offices, blaming the media and social media for all their troubles.
A theory is spreading like wildfire. That in the next general elections both the Congress and the BJP, counting their seats together, will get less than 272 seats. Mulayam, Mamata, Jayalalithaa, Naveen Patnaik, and Nitish Kumar, not to mention a Jagan Reddy in Andhra may well be the combined leaders of India in the future. Delhi as a centre of political power will cease to exist if it hasn’t already.
Where will the hot afternoon take us? Will the Congress accept APJ Abdul Kalam as a consensus candidate? The wonderful Kalam is beloved of millions but has always been an NDA president, backed as he always has been by the BJP. Kalam as president would be a massive loss of authority for the Congress, would completely isolate and diminish the Congress and perhaps even force it to resign.
Will Sonia Gandhi accept Manmohan Singh as President and find a new prime minister, maybe an AK Antony? Or will the Congress work with allies to find an altogether new name for president? Or, as it seems to be doing at the moment, will the Congress fight it out with Mamata Banerjee and Mulayam Singh Yadav and demonstrate that it still rules Delhi and can still install Pranab Mukherjee in Rashtrapati Bhavan, inspite of Mamata’s implacable opposition to him?
The long hot afternoon and a long battle has only just begun. And none of it is about who will be the president of India.
Sagarika Ghose is Deputy Editor, CNNIBN