Last week, when it seemed as though the nation was headed toward a mid-term poll for the Congress-led UPA’s seeming inability to have a president of its choice, an All India Congress Committee functionary told me categorically: "The presidential candidate will be Sonia Gandhi’s choice and everyone will eventually come around."
When I asked him how he could be so sure, he said the Congress had done its own calculations. "Mulayam is already regretting his haste in teaming up with the maverick Mamata and the BJP is in such deep trouble itself – within and with its allies -- that we have no doubt its opposition is just tokenism. Eventually, even they will toe our line."
His reasoning was that no one wants a mid-term election at this juncture because all political parties are in disarray. And even if there was to be one, the Congress, though reduced, would still be the single-largest party. "But we will not support any Third Front government. You can then imagine the chaos that no one really wants."
A week is a long time in politics and his words seem to have come true in all respects, but that the BJP is still struggling to find its own feet in the presidential race. The biggest blow to the party, apart from the JD(U)’s refusal to field a candidate against Pranab Mukherjee, has to be Bal Thackeray’s open letter on the front page of Saamna on his party’s foundation day (June 19) – it is hand signed, leaving no one in doubt that he supports Mukherjee for president.
The Shiv Sena is one ally that the BJP has always taken for granted and it is now clear that Thackeray is chafing at the bit. In 2007, Thackeray’s support to Pratibha Patil could be explained as driven by regional interests — after all the Sena was a party for the Marathi manoos and when one such Maharashtrian, the first, was headed to Rashtrapati Bhavan, it would have destroyed everything Thackeray has stood for over the years had he voted against Patil.
But when, under identical circumstances, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, a UPA ally, is unfazed by the consequences of opposing the first ‘Bongo Bandhu’ put up for the race, why should there be any good reason for Thackeray to declare Mukherjee as the best candidate for the job?
The move is, therefore, a warning to the BJP – Thackeray has been upset that he is not being accorded due respect by the younger leadership of the BJP. Amid reports that Mukherjee is said to have called Thackeray up on Monday to seek his support for the election, I recall how both Thackeray and his son Uddhav were quite taken by some other Congress courtesies: then chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh’s visit to their home, Matoshree, to thank them for their support to Patil and Patil’s own calls from Rashtrapati Bhavan to greet them on their birthdays. Thackeray, I am told, has not received even a single birthday greeting from any top BJP leader all these years.
However, more than such courtesies or pique at the lack of them, Thackeray’s rooting for Mukherjee is an indication that the Sena might be going back to its roots – leaning more towards the Congress and drawing support from the ruling party for its own survival. That suits the Congress as well -- both are under threat from NCP president Sharad Pawar’s nephew, Ajit, whose dearest wish now is to become chief minister by hook or by crook.
That ambition threatens even his own uncle’s long-term plans. It is no wonder then that Purno Sangma should now be in the presidential race as Pawar’s red herring. Should the BJP find their own candidate, he cuts into the opposition vote with the support of the Orissa and Tamil Nadu chief ministers, both of who are close to Pawar (they were NCP allies in 2009). If not, he shows up the BJP as rudderless and strengthens the Congress. Either way, amid reports that Pawar might have influenced Thackeray’s decision, he earns brownie points with the UPA while checkmating his own nephew’s plans to deal with the Congress by splitting the NCP in return for being made chief minister. And he has Prithviraj Chavan’s current moves against the NCP called off in return.
Anyone wondered why Pawar has, then, all along seemed the least troublesome of the Congress’s allies vis-à-vis the presidential stakes?
Sujata Anandan is political editor at Hindustan Times.