Mulayam in the middle
A day before the opening phase of polling in Uttar Pradesh, political signals from several directions appeared focussed on one man: SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav.
The Congress appealed for a tactical understanding with him against the BJP in Madhya Pradesh. The NCP said Mulayam could hold the key in a hung Parliament. And the CPI-M announced Mulayam had assured them that he would not be swayed by the NDA's overtures.
The SP has 10 of the 32 UP seats that go to polls on Monday. Should the Muslim vote not split badly, it is expected to hold on to or increase its numbers: a situation that is likely to make Mulayam kingmaker — if not king - in the hung house that some opinion and exit polls have predicted. Both Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and NDA convener George Fernandes appeared to recognise this possibility when they recently referred to Mulayam as a "friend' with whom they had no differences.
On Sunday, Congress Working Committee member Arjun Singh appealed to Mulayam to withdraw the 26 candidates he has put up in Madhya Pradesh, so that the non-BJP vote is not split. Singh reminded Mulayam that the Congress had backed his government in Lucknow, and argued that his withdrawal would act as a "great handicap to communal forces represented by the RSS and the BJP".
NCP leader and the Congress's Maharashtra ally, Sharad Pawar, predicted to NDTV that neither the NDA nor the Congress would get a majority, and parties like the SP and Mayawati's BSP would be crucial players in the new House.
CPI-M general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet issued a statement saying Mulayam and Amar Singh had assured him of the SP's commitment to the anti-communal plank, and that NDA overtures to the party were "deliberate and mischievous".
Amid all these pulls from various directions, Mulayam appeared to be playing his cards close to his chest — notwithstanding the fact that Amar Singh has gone on record to rebuff the NDA's overtures.
On Sunday, the SP boss spoke in Mirzapur about a third front of smaller parties emerging in the post-poll situation. And on Aaj Tak, he said that the SP would decide on backing a non-BJP candidate for Prime Minister only after the elections were over. He also sidestepped a question on Sonia Gandhi's candidature.