Finally, the decision has been made. The UPA, minus the Trinamool, chooses finance minister and veteran Congress leader Pranab Mukherjee as its candidate for the July 19 presidential election. The twists and turns that continued in the political circles in Lutyen's Delhi over the last few days left a large section of the media, political observers and the common men confused and even, at times, frustrated.
Forget the opposing alliances, it even reached a position where every other party in the multi-fragmented polity pitching in with names of candidates of their choice. Sometimes, even the candidates whose names were announced time again on the TV, were caught by surprise after hearing that efforts were on to push them into the prestigious precincts of the Raisina Hills.
The way in which the entire episode of presidential election has been handed this time shows the degree to which the capacity of our civilian authorities have eroded. First there was a waiting game by all, including the ruling UPA, with rumours of his or her names doing the rounds. But once the Election Commission of India declared the schedules, the mad run was flagged off! Choosing the candidate gradually turned out into a alliance-making game for future general elections.
The chaos was primarily orchestrated by the UPA government, another of its mishandling of things. The Congress gave all power, as usual, to its chief, Sonia Gandhi for electing a candidate and she invited Mamata Banerjee, leader of the second largest ally in the UPA government, the Trinamool Congress (TMC), to discuss names. So far, so good. But hereafter, the problem started. After meeting Sonia Gandhi, Banerjee told to the media that the Congress was backing Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Vice-President Hamid Ansari as its candidates of preference, in that order.
But Banerjee said her party was not decided on the issue and would speak to Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Mulayam Singh Yadav before taking a decision. On June 13 evening, the two leaders came out with another three names of preference, including APJ Abdul Kalam, Somnath Chatterjee (whom Banerjee had defeated in the 1984 general elections to become an MP for the first time) and none other than the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh!
This was too much for the Congress to digest and it trained guns on Banerjee for not only revealing names of Congress's preference in the public but also dragging the name of the PM as a potential presidential candidate. Soon tit-for-tat politics commenced and there was no stopping to the Indian Presidential Tamasha. Even the West Bengal Congress leadership slammed Mamata alleging that she was creating an obstacle in the way of a Bengali (read Mukherjee) despite being a Bengali herself.
Many quarters had initially believed that Mamata's repeated meetings with the SP could send worrying signals to the Congress for both these parties were powerful enough to drub the UPA together and were eyeing for mid-term polls by cornering the government. But it turned out to be otherwise. The Samajwadi Party, too, made a volte-face, saying it would support Mukherjee. Mamata Banerjee was left red-faced.
The picture that Pranab Mukherjee would be the candidate was getting clearer since Thursday night. But the way the run-up to the presidential poll has turned out this team, it clearly shows the declining standard of our politics. Nothing more proves it than the ugly spat between the Congress and Trinamool, which could even trigger a split in the ruling alliance in the West Bengal government. But why Mamata Banerjee is refusing to back Pranab?
Banerjee is not happy with Mukherjee's role as far as the financial package for West Bengal is concerned. Despite repeated appeal, the finance ministry did not meet the demand. Another reason could be the difference over the financial reforms. Banerjee's opposition to issues like FDI in retail and pension bill was clearly not endorsed by the finance ministry. The relation between the two worsened during this year's railway budget. It is said that Banerjee had accused Mukherjee of being instrumental behind former Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi's proposal to hike railway fares.
Perhaps the biggest problem is personality clash. Both Banerjee and Mukherjee are two of the biggest political icons from Bengal since the post-Indira days. Both have played an active role in the national politics but Banerjee a way ahead figure in Bengal's state politics. Banerjee though often found saying in the public that Mukherjee was like 'elder brother' and that he had even requested the late Rajiv Gandhi, her mentor, to bring back Mukherjee into the party fold after he had been sacked on in the mid-1980s. She, nevertheless, was not always happy about Mukherjee's role in the state politics.
The TMC chief was not amused by the fact that Mukherjee had 'never appreciated' her herculean efforts in toppling a 34-year-old Leftist rule in West Bengal last year. The veteran Congressman did not attend the TMC's swearing-in ceremony, either, despite Banerjee sending him invitation. The fact that Mukherjee has had cordial relations with many Left leaders in Bengal was also not likened by the TMC chief.
But now Banerjee finds herself in isolation for most major parties were backing Mukherjee's candidature. Being a megalomaniac, she would never like anybody to compete with her stature, particularly in Bengal. But she should have understood that it is not in Bengal that she was defying the Congress but at the national level, where Mukherjee has a much higher-degree of acceptability. But she went ahead thinking it would be just another cakewalk vis-a-vis the Congress.
Another reason for the opposition could be the post-2014 scenario. There is every chance of the TMC leaving the Congress's fold by then and presence of a Congress-backed President at the helm would not be liked by the non-Congress parties, including the TMC.
The second blunder she did was to play into the traps of the Samajwadi Party's manoeuvrings. Floating the PM's name was an unnecessary step and she could have gone into a harder bergain with the Congress, like she had done in the past. The onus lies on the TMC chief to find a way out of the rut, both at the Centre and the state.