What was she thinking? Behind Mamata’s master stroke

by Sandip Roy and Lakshmi Chaudhry

Bengali media are running out of words to describe Mamata’s presidential ploy. A Hollywood thriller, says one television channel. “Mistress of surprise” the Telegraph dubs her. The consensus seems to be it’s a “master stroke”. “Mamata likes to do what has never been done before,” marvels Akash Bangla.

Why did she take the risk of scuttling the first real prospect of a Bengali president? Take the unprecedented step of nominating a sitting Prime Minister for President? What was she thinking?

The Manmohan googly

Manmohan Singh-ji, as Mamata called him, is a poison pill disguised as a compliment. MMS maybe a non-starter for the Congress, the UPA cannot exactly dismiss their own PM as unfit to be president.

And while some claim M&M are playing their part in an elaborate Sonia plan to kick MMS upstairs, Mamata rubbished that theory, saying: “Will you give no credit to us? Does all credit always go to the Congress? Mulayam Singhji and I decided on Manmohan Singh’s name by ourselves.”

A Trinamool source told ABP that Mamata actually gave those names to Sonia. Mrs Gandhi's reaction was she could not support Kalam since he had been the NDA nominated president. On MMS, she simply asked “Will he agree?”

 What was she thinking? Behind Mamata’s master stroke

In an interesting departure, Mamata is staying on in Delhi instead of following her usual MO of lobbing her grenades and heading back to Kolkata. The game is on, and she is very much in control. PTI

“Manmohan Singh deserves to rest in Rashtrapati Bhavan given the way the government is running,” said a Trinamool leader at Mulayam’s residence to The Telegraph. “Didi khela kore dilo.” (Didi made her play)

Some papers are calling this a ringing endorsement of the S&P assessment of the PM, even as TMC sources remained steadfastly diplomatic. SP leaders like Azam Singh, however, were far less charitable:

All the problems of Congress party will be resolved if Manmohan Singh is made the President. This will clear the way for Rahul Gandhi to become the Prime Minister. For the President's post, we need a person who remains silent, doesn't apply his mind and passes a bill without much difficulty. Such qualities are found in the current Prime Minister.

 The Mir Jafar factor

While all the chatter in Delhi is about MMS, the name that’s thrown Bengal’s political establishment for a loop is former Lok Sabha speaker Somnath Chatterjee. A man with whom Mamata shares a long and stormy history.

Chatterjee was the giant felled by Mamata in her first Lok Sabha election in 1984, the London returned lawyer defeated by the true subaltern. “After that loss Somnath Chatterjee would not utter her name for a long time,” said Debajyoti Ghosh, political reporter with ABP Ananda. When he was Lok Sabha speaker, Mamata stormed into the well of the House, tearing up her papers, because he would not let her speak. “His nomination shows that nothing is impossible in politics,” says Ghosh.

After nixing Pranab Mukherjee’s chance to be the first Bengali president of India, Mamata needed to show that she still cares about Bengali pride. “Does Mamata want to go down the road of becoming a Mir Jafar to a large section of West Bengal?” wonders Bartaman newspaper.

Mamata has made it clear — after returning empty handed from meeting Pranab Mukherjee, time after time — that she considers him no friend of Bengal. In fact, Pranab’s status as Bengal congressman might have been his undoing. Mamata is afraid that a Bengali congressman as president could increase the clout of the local party whose wings she has severely clipped. And given the Congress’ waning fortunes, she does not want a hardcore loyalist in Rashtrapati Bhavan in 2014 to advance his party's interests.

And he’s exactly the kind of erudite Bengali babu that Mamata has had to fight against all her life. “Was Mamata waiting for just such an opportunity to exact her revenge on Pranab Mukherjee,” wonders Akash Bangla. Pranab-da also angered Mamata because “he never spoke to her and sought her support. He was reported to have said he could make it to Rashtrapati Bhavan without Mamata’s support” a TMC insider told Telegraph.

Somnath is Bengali but is also in near political exile. He was holidaying in London and says he knew nothing about his name being proposed. “I feel good, I am grateful,” he told ABP Ananda. “But I have no idea if it will be contested or not." Asked if it was a masterstroke to nominate the man she defeated in her first election, he said: “I am a retired politician now. What do I know about masterstrokes?”

But newschannels are already asking: “Did Didi advance the name of one Dada to block another Dada?”

All politics is local

However it plays out on the national stage, Chatterjee may indeed be the perfect choice in the context of Bengal politics. His nomination puts the Left in a fix, much to Mamata's endless pleasure. She can pretend to have risen above party politics by nominating an expelled CPM leader that his own party can hardly support.

"But they also know that a section of the party, especially in West Bengal had soft feelings towards Somnathbabu,” reports Ananda Bazar Patrika. The CPM already got a black eye in Bengal because it blocked Jyoti Basu’s ascent to the prime minister’s post. Now that they are struggling in West Bengal would they now want to send out a message that they are blocking yet another Bengalis’ rise to the top? They can't be seen as supporting a BJP backed candidate to block Somnath either.

“Mamata is occupying the CPM’s political space nationally. She has taken their political stance now she is taking their space as well,” noted a commentator on Tara News. She has usurped the kingmaker role that belonged to CPM in UPA-I.

For all the talk of Mamata's "madness," her latest play is carefully calibrated to cover all her bases. Of her three choices — a Muslim and a Bengali to match Sonia's picks, with the added bonus of a Sikh — Abdul Kalam may end up being her winning card. He is the candidate of choice for both the NDA and Mulayam. If he does indeed win the presidential sweepstakes, Mamata may well emerge the biggest kingmaker of them all.

The M&M "master stroke"

After months of the UPA cozying up to Mulayam Singh Yadav as a counterweight to the unreliable Mamata, Didi proved that she remains one step ahead in the game. “These two proved that sharik dals (partners) are not disposable,” said Chitrita Sanyal of 24 Ghonta. Ananda Bazar Patrika says both Mamata and Mulayam want the vote to come forward because they think they can increase their numbers. “The tail has declared it wants to wag the dog,” writes Sankarshan Thakur in The Telegraph. “The dog must now respond to that dare.”

The other M&M goal: money, money, money. According to AsianAge, Mamata is "disappointed" with the terms of the financial package offered by the Centre:

Apparently Ms Banerjee and Mr Yadav have joined hands to pressure the Centre to bail out Bengal and Uttar Pradesh . “Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav has written 13 letters to the PM so far to press for financial aid for various schemes. The SP government in Uttar Pradesh cannot fulfil poll promises if funds are not made available for the state. We have common cause with Ms Banerjee,” said a senior Samajwadi Party leader.

Mamata, however dismissed all talk of a linkage between a package for Bengal and her presidential choice as “rumour and gossip” meant to “humiliate” her.

For the time being, she is clearly keeping her options — and ears — wide open. In an interesting departure, Mamata is staying on in Delhi instead of following her usual MO of lobbing her grenades and heading back to Kolkata. The game is on, and she is very much in control.

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Updated Date: Jun 14, 2012 14:50:17 IST