In a clear attempt to retrieve the situation after being completely outwitted by its ally, the Trinamool Congress, the Congress seems finally determined to take its opponents head on.
Realising that some regional parties were bent upon creating instability to force an early poll, the Congress took its other partners in confidence while announcing the name of finance minister Pranab Mukherjee on Friday. The announcement is also being seen as a move to wrest back the initiative, which for a while seemed to be with both West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee and Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav.
The declaration of Mukherjee’s name has also pre-empted any attempt by Banerjee to drive a wedge between the Congress and its other allies. Banerjee is very keen on former president APJ Abdul Kalam. And Yadav was being seen as the one person who could even influence the final UPA decision on the issue.
The Congress decision to field Mukherjee is also based on the assumption that West Bengal legislators and MPs will find it very difficult to oppose an eminent Bengali from their state. In fact, the move is likely to put Banerjee on the defensive.
Political observers also see the early announcement of the UPA candidate as assertion of its strength. At the core of this announcement could be the Congress’s belief that given Mukherjee’s long standing in politics and his stature, it will be very difficult for any political party to oppose him.
It is his stature that has also overcome resistance in some quarters of his own party, since his detractors were convinced that denial of the nomination to him could lead to a major political crisis resulting in realignment of political forces and the government being pushed out of power.
On paper, the UPA still needs the support of many other political groups since it cannot get its nominee elected on its own strength. The Congress strategy therefore will be to try and evolve a consensus on Pranab’s name, and failing which, at least get as many parties as possible to back him.
The Congress is also taking steps to ensure that its flock stays together, particularly after the drubbing its candidates have received in its strongest state, Andhra Pradesh where YSR Congress president Jaganmohan Reddy has emerged as a political star.
The Congress fear is that in an election by secret ballot, Jagan may be able to persuade some Congress legislators and MPs to vote for the opposition nominee, thereby reducing the strength of the ruling party.
Congress managers have been in touch with chief ministers who have been summoned to the capital to meet the party president Sonia Gandhi. She will ask them to ensure that there was no cross-voting in their respective states that could impact the outcome of the presidential poll.
A cause of concern is Uttarakhand, which had recently seen a revolt by 18 MLAs. The party seems determined to renew its faith in strong state leaders like Captain Amarinder Singh in Punjab and Virbhadra Singh in Himachal, and is relying on them to combat any possible dissidence.