On the face of it, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s name in Mulayam Singh and Mamata Banerjee’s wish-list for the presidency seemed an opening the Congress could use to overhaul the government at the Centre.
To many within the Congress and among its alliance partners, radical changes in the government and the party organisation are the only cure for the dangerously anaemic alliance.
The natural corollary to Singh’s elevation being selection of a new PM, the Congress’s political managers smelt in the SP-TMC move a plot to destabilise the UPA regime.Fresh from thumping victories in their home states, the twosome appeared keen on capturing the Centre through a repeat performance in early Lok Sabha elections.
They saw in the Mamata-Mulayam gameplan a replication of the 1969 presidential election the Congress old-guard — known as the Syndicate — sought to use to contain Indira Gandhi’s ascendance. Then a greenhorn PM with a Left-of-the-Centre agenda, Indira turned the tables on the
Right-leaning Syndicate. She ensured their candidate N Sanjeeva Reddy’s defeat at the hands of VV Giri.
That the presidency could be used to embarrass or harass the government was evident as much during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure when Giani Zail Singh tended to act on the advice of the PM’s detractors. The government then, as it is now, was confronted with serious charges of graft.
The coalition era that set in after the 1989 polls underscored the role the President could play in government formation in a hung House. Through the 1990s after the fall of the VP Singh dispensation, a string of minority or coalition regimes governed the country.
In 1996, President Shankar Dayal Sharma set the precedent his successors broadly followed by inviting the single-largest minority party to take a shot at government formation. But Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s first attempt at proving his majority in the House did not last.
His government was followed by Congress-supported United Front regimes of Deve Gowda and Inder Gujral. These abysmally short-lived experiments necessitated mid-term elections in 1998, bringing Vajpayee to power for the second time.
It was left to KR Narayanan, who by then had made it to the presidency to improve on Sharma’s model by seeking written expressions of support for the core party’s alliance partners and outside supporters. The safeguard worked well during Vajpayee’s third term starting 1999.
The ongoing tug-of-war over the presidency is keener also because the new incumbent’s tenure will overlap with the regimes of the UPA and its successor. No matter which side they are. It’s important for regional players with oversized ambitions to forestall the possibility of a hostile presidency.
In this backdrop, Congress strategists read the proposal for Singh’s elevation as a ruse to complicate matters. Their main objective was to create an opening for a leadership change in the House.
The ‘affront’ Mamata caused to Sonia Gandhi by making public their privileged conversation --- in which the names of Pranab Mukherjee and Hamid Ansari were discussed --- hastened the Congress into hardening its stance.
It’s difficult to predict the winner. But the contest could bring alive memories of the photo-finish between Giri and Reddy over four decades ago.