Theory M: Modi, Mamata, Mulayam, Meira, Mukherjee, Mid-term polls

Some interesting questions to ask in the current political atmosphere are these:

Why was Mamata Banerjee’s response to the steep petrol price hike muted? The last time she was livid about it, and Trinamool even threatened to pull its ministers out of the government.

What is the Samajwadi Party’s game in cosying up to the UPA for its third anniversary? How did Rahul Gandhi agree to a photo-op with Mulayam Singh Yadav after all the verbal abuse during the UP elections?

Why is the Congress high command so silent on the presidential poll, and especially Pranab Mukherjee’s candidature, which has wide cross-party support?

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Why did Mamata offer the name of Meira Kumar for president even while debunking Mukherjee’s candidature?

Why should the frequent foreign travels (and high expenses) of Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia become such a target for The Hindu’s P Sainath? His only qualification for this honour is that he is a close advisor to Manmohan Singh.

Why has the BJP suddenly decided to make peace with Narendra Modi?

What is Mayawati’s gameplan, now that she has lost power?

If you are wondering how I am going to link all these questions, here’s the answer: there is an ‘M’ connecting all the questions: Mamata, Mukherjee, Manmohan, Montek, Meira, Mulayam, Modi, Mayawati.

And here’s a conspiracy theory to connect all the dots. Or all the M’s. We issue it with the usual disclaimer.

Who would be most interested in seeing Pranab Mukherjee as president? Though his candidature has received wide support among many parties, the man most interested in elevating him would be Manmohan Singh.

Why? Because in recent weeks the media has been talking about how Mukherjee, the Congress ace trouble-shooter, would have made a better PM than Manmohan. Enough to stoke the PM’s insecurities? If we consider the fact that it was the PM’s office that gave out the letter of complaint sent by former Sebi member KM Abraham, which alleged that Pranab’s office was pressuring him on certain cases, it all falls into place. The PM would probably like to see Mukherjee out of the FM’s job.

When P Chidambaram was moved out of the FM’s office after 26/11, Manmohan wanted to bring in Montek – but it was Sonia Gandhi who over-ruled it since she wanted a politician in the seat. She gave Mukherjee the job he preferred (he was earlier foreign minister).

But would she want Mukherjee as president? Sending Mukherjee to Rashtrapati Bhawan may not be part of her plans, since she needs someone who will clearly play the Congress game in case the elections throw up a hung house? Can she trust Mukherjee to fully bat for her?

On the other hand, she can’t oppose his candidature for the presidency – not after all he has done for the party. So what better way than to ask Mamata to spike that proposal (which she did three days ago) and suggest Meira Kumar’s name?

But why would Mamata want to oblige Sonia unless she has got something from her in return? Has she been promised a Bengal package, or some other kind of support against the Left in Bengal? Is that why Mamata’s opposition to the petrol price hike is so muted?

That’s two M’s taken care of: Mamata and Meira.

But, of course, Manmohan is not part of this deal, and so we have to presume he has plans for the FM’s job just in case Pranab is elevated. Who would Manmohan want as FM in case Pranab moved to Rashtrapati Bhavan?

Who else but Montek?

To be sure, if Sonia doesn’t want Montek as FM, there is no way she can tell that easily to Manmohan, who has pretty much done what she wanted him to at great cost to his personal reputation and integrity as a reformer. If Manmohan insisted on Montek – he is capable of being obstinate when he puts his heart in it, as his stand on the N-deal showed – Sonia would need to find some other way to get him to not insist on it.

What better way than to make Montek look unsuitable for the post due to his excessive travel spending? In the past, Sonia Gandhi’s National Advisory Council (NAC) cabal has made it a point to target Montek for his free market views – and his much-criticised Rs 32 urban poverty line. Last year, they made a ruckus outside the Planning Commission about Montek’s views. Would they have done this if they knew Sonia backed Montek?

Sonia clearly needs a politician other than Mukherjee, and certainly not Montek, in the FM’s chair so that her social agenda can be pushed in the run-up to the next general election. The Hindu article comes in handy to deny Montek the FM’s chair.

But how does not having Montek in the seat help Sonia, or her freebie plans for the next election?

Look at it this way. Given the kind of tough decisions that need to be taken by the UPA due to the economic crisis facing the country, Sonia cannot guarantee there will be no political mishap for all of two years as the rupee shoots down, inflation spikes up, and the fiscal deficit careens out of control.

She may not want more than a stop-gap FM while she and her political secretary plot their next move.

This is where Mulayam Singh is a kind of insurance plan. Not just against a wayward Mamata, but also Mayawati. Compared to the two ladies, Mulayam can be a stable ally. (Remember, he was the one who rescued UPA-1 in the trust vote). And he spells access to another M – the Muslim votebank. This is probably why Mulayam Singh was invited to the UPA-2 anniversary bash the other day.

But what’s in it for Mulayam himself? The answer is even simpler: with Mayawati breathing down his neck, and with his victory in the UP assembly polls being based on a small gain in vote share, it is only a matter of time before the vote share starts swinging back towards Mayawati. This means, unless mid-term polls come very quickly, Mulayam Singh will not be able to reap a second crop of votes in Lok Sabha poll.

So what could be his gameplan? A tieup with Congress, where the two parties divide UP seats 50:50 or even 60:40, would benefit both Samajwadi Party and Congress. Together, they could hope to sweep 70 of UP’s 80 seats since the Muslim vote would consolidate behind them. It suits both Congress and Mulayam to play this game. At least in seat-sharing.

But this is where another M complicates the picture: Modi. With the BJP now conciliating him by getting rid of Sanjay Joshi from the National Executive, the stage is being set for giving him a bigger role in the party. The BJP knows that if it really wants to reap the next anti-Congress vote, it may have to opt for Modi despite his supposed political handicaps – his anti-Muslim image.

But even the Congress knows that a seasoned politician like Modi will not fail to make his moves to change his anti-Muslim image. This is why he conducted his Sadhbhavna fasts, and if he is eyeing the top job in the country, he will surely make more dramatic overtures.

Given the anti-Congress mood building up in the country, this is precisely the situation the Congress cannot countenance. The Congress knows that Modi cannot really enter the national stage full-time before the Gujarat elections in December, which means it must make his moves before that.

Now what will that move be? A new court case? A new sting to expose Modi? A concerted political attack?

Or a mid-term poll before the Gujarat assembly elections?

Consider the pros of a mid-term election: Congress will lose some seats, but if it ties up with Mulayam, it will gain in UP what it may lose in Andhra or Rajasthan. Even assuming Congress falls from 206 seats to, say, 150, it could still form a government if there is a mid-term poll scheduled around this October. In 2004, Congress formed a government with far less seats.

Now consider the cons of sitting tight till 2014: all the unpopular decisions that have to be taken on the economic front will fall due. A victorious Modi will be touring the country drumming support for himself and the BJP. Would that be a better scenario for Congress? And why would a Modi not tie up with Mayawati to counter the Congress-Mulayam alliance?

In either case, sticking to Mulayam has its advantages.

The dots connecting all the M’s in this story point to the possibility of another M -  a Mid-term poll, driven by fears of Mayawati and Modi.

Any takers for Theory M?