After days of restraint, the Congress on Monday decided to take on its increasingly troublesome ally, Mulayam Singh Yadav, by rubbishing the idea of a Third Front as it prepared to focus on a partnership with his bitter rival, Mayawati.
The party also prised further open an ajar door to estranged partner Mamata Banerjee and held out a carrot to wavering BJP ally Nitish Kumar in the form of special financial packages for West Bengal and Bihar.
Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam first embarrassed the Congress last week by saying it headed a corrupt regime and praising senior BJP leaders, and Mulayam’s son Akhilesh, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, hinted that the SP could withdraw support to the ruling UPA even in the current budget session.
Then, late on Sunday, Mulayam suggested in Maharashtra that parties committed to social change in Bihar, UP and Maharashtra should come together.
This proved too much for the Congress, which heads a UPA coalition fighting for survival after being ditched by southern ally DMK last week.
“Some regional and political parties are such that for them only power matters,” said Congress leader Digvijaya Singh.
His colleague, Congress spokesperson Rashid Alvi was more strident: “He (Yadav) is praising those responsible for the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992 and for the 2002 riots in Gujarat.”
Sources said that the BSP, from its recent dealings with the Congress, was getting the sense that it would be the preferred partner as it is out of power in UP and hence more malleable.
While the main opposition party BJP, in no rush for elections, is not fishing in troubled waters, the ruling group's task in managing its flock is a tough one. As if to underline this, two other allies, the NCP and JD(S) appeared to back Mulayam's rallying cry.
“What Mulayam Singhji has said is absolutely correct…The entire idea of a single dominant party system is over and the era of coalition has begun,” said DP Tripathi, spokesman for the NCP, which has three central ministers but a troubled recent history with the Congress.
Danish Ali, party general secretary of the JD(S), whose three MPs provide outside backing to the UPA government said: “ I can only say that in the coming Lok Sabha elections there is a 99.9- percent chance of a non-Congress, non-BJP led government coming to power.”
The Congress drew some support from an unlikely quarter. BJP leader Balbir Punj mocked the idea of the Third Front, dubbing it a non-starter.