All the three M’s – Mayawati, Mulayam Singh and Mamata Banerjee – have now mentioned the M word clearly: Mid-term polls. And once Gujarat votes on the fourth M – Modi – the near-nine-year term of the fifth M – Manmohan Singh – will be well and truly over.
Mulayam Singh asked his party cadres to prepare for a mid-term poll a few months ago, but after the Mamata pullout from the government he saw short-term benefits in staying with the UPA to extract benefits for Uttar Pradesh. Mayawati told the media the other day that she will take a call very soon on whether to dump the UPA or not.
Other parties are also getting ready. Nitin Gadkari told The Economic Times today that he did not see the UPA surviving beyond the winter session of parliament.
The BJP's ally in Bihar, the Janata Dal (United) is preparing to part ways with the party - as is evident from Nitish Kumar's latest yatra to woo the electorate, and the BJP's efforts to target Kumar's failures. A JD(U)-BJP split is due anytime in 2013.
It’s very clear what they are all waiting for: a final signal from what happens in Gujarat. If, as is widely expected, Modi wins in a canter, the message going around nationally will be that Congress is a loser. All the parties supporting the UPA will then want to dissociate themselves from the party – the sooner the better.
The big acceleration on undeliverable reforms announced by the finance minister is largely driven by the realisation that once the Gujarat results are out, the collapse of the UPA could be hastened. The allies may no longer want to be seen propping up the Congress, or even wait for it to deliver its freebies in the next budget.
What is also clear is that the decision is with two M’s of Uttar Pradesh – Mayawati and Mulayam – both of whom have similar stakes – but different assessments of their chances - in India’s largest state.
Between them, they are the principal poles in the state, and both know that they will play a huge role in the next government, depending on how many seats they get. Mulayam Singh wants to get at least 40-50 seats, and Mayawati would like to see that he doesn’t get that much.
This is why the Congress still has some hope. Barring an accident, the UPA will fall only if both Mayawati and Mulayam see value in an election. On the other hand, both of them would like to be ones to deliver the fatal blow to the UPA – since the other party will then be seen as backing a corrupt regime. They are playing a cat and mouse game with each other.
No matter who decides first, both of them will have a same tired old justification for propping up the Congress government – the fight against communal forces.
Which is why everybody is waiting for Gujarat. If the state delivers a verdict that strengthens Modi and makes it apparent that he could be a contender for leading the BP in the next elections, it will send off contradictory signals.
Both Mulayam Singh and Mayawati will be caught in a bind. Pulling out of the UPA will send the signal that they are letting a secular government down; but if they don’t do that, they will not be able to claim that they are the only ones who can keep the BJP out.
Mulayam Singh, of course, will claim this no matter what happens. Barring a brief dalliance with Kalyan Singh in 2006, he has by and large stayed clear of the BJP. Mayawati, who has a record of allying with the BJP off and on when it suits her, will certainly not be seen as the person who can be trusted to avoid the BJP. The UP electorate knows she can do anything.
So the chances are Mulayam Singh may find it more expedient to pull the plug on the UPA after the Gujarat elections, especially when he has everything to lose by delaying the polls. The more he waits, the stronger the anti-incumbency that will face the Samajwadi Party, which anyway has not got off to a great start. Talk of goondaism is already rampant in UP.
If Mulayam does not act soon, he will also be faced with the prospect of supporting the Congress’ unpopular policies right to the bitter end. Since it is very clear that the next budget will be populist, it makes no sense for Mulayam to let Congress take all the credit for it, unless he is clearly going to have seat sharing arrangements with the Congress in the Lok Sabha elections. This is the only circumstance in which the Congress-led UPA will last the full term.
But as a contender for Prime Ministership in the next government, the betting should be that Mulayam Singh will be the one to pull the plug first. He may be waiting for an electoral signal from Gujarat on that other M – Modi. After that, the UPA may well be counting its days.
Reason: the regional parties will benefit only if they don't give Modi time to consolidate his hold over the BJP and set his own agenda for the general elections. It is highly unlikely that Modi will be able to extricate himself from Gujarat so soon after the state assembly results. This again points that Mulayam Singh will strike sometime after December this year to seize the initiative before Modi gets into stride.
20 December – the date of the Gujarat election results – is the date to watch. It could mark the beginning of the UPA’s end.