Mulayam is a street fighter of old, and not new to the art of bargaining and pressure politics. He obviously used Mamata's antipathy towards Pranab to go along with her and moot three names, different from the ones suggested by Sonia Gandhi. The idea was obviously to send his own message to an otherwise unheeding Congress party, that they had to take his concerns on board, says Neerja Chowdhury.
Clearly Mulayam Singh Yadav has emerged as the pivot on which hinges the outcome of the race for the republic's next Rashtrapati.
His flip-flop-flip has confounded even the Congress leaders, who were caught unawares by the 'M&M' bombshell, Mulayam Singh lobbed along with Mamata Banerjee last Wednesday.
Since he had thrown enough hints in recent weeks, that he wanted a 'politician' as President, it was seen as a clear signal that he was rooting for Pranab Mukherjee and against Hamid Ansari, the two candidates the United Progressive Alliance had zeroed in on.
But Mulayam is a street fighter of old, and not new to the art of bargaining and pressure politics. He obviously used Mamata's antipathy towards Pranab to go along with her and moot three names, different from the ones suggested by Sonia Gandhi. The idea was obviously to send his own message to an otherwise unheeding Congress party, that they had to take his concerns on board, and these went beyond the financial package he, like Mamata, wants for his state.
Mulayam Singh's cousin Ram Gopal Yadav, who has been the face of the Samajwadi Party in Delhi for many years as its Rajya Sabha MP, almost gave the game away on Friday morning. All smiles, a beaming Ram Gopal Yadav told the media that the SP did not want to bring on a mid-term poll nor did it want to enter the government, but would continue to support it from outside.
This was another signal to the Congress managers, who have been in back channel talks with Mulayam's people ever since the M&M bombshell that the SP was now angling for the post of the vice-president and that Ram Gopal Yadav was the frontrunner for it. Not long ago, the Congress party had offered deputy chairmanship of the Rajya Sabha to him, to bring Mulayam on board, but it had been turned down by the SP leaders.
It remains to be seen how the Congress handles this googly, given the cases that are on against Mulayam and his family members, and the Congress would have to tread carefully. Ideally, it would like the SP to enter the government, for that could impart the UPA a measure of stabililty, with Mamata behaving so erratically.
Many believe that Mulayam strung Mamata along, and got her to include the name of prime minister in their list of possible presidential candidates. It was this -- it was unprecedented for an ally to make a case, and that too publicly, that the prime minister of the government, of which her party is a member, should cease to be PM and be 'kicked upstairs' -- which triggered off an angry reaction from the Congress and widened the gap between it and the Trinamool Congress, almost to a point of no return.
If he has to align with the UPA, Mulayam, an old warhorse at the game, would naturally want the Congress to be dependent on him solely, without the luxury of having the comfort of having both the SP and the Trinamool Congress, to offset each other, which dilutes the importance of both.
Did Mamata fall into his trap? For, when she called on Sonia Gandhi, Mamata had mentioned only two names, from her side -- those of APJ Abdul Kalam and Somnath Chatterjee but not that of the PM. Dr Manmohan Singh's name got added to the list at her meeting with Mulayam Singh.
Angered by the M&M stand, the Congress decided finally to call Mamata's bluff. After weeks of uncertainty about who was going to be Sonia Gandhi's 'real' choice, the Congress President decided to bat for Pranab as the UPA's presidential nominee.
But it wanted to field him only if the numbers added up. The Congress High Command went into an overdrive and summoned all the chief ministers of the Congress ruled states to get a realistic measure of the numbers it had, if push came to shove.
Pranab opened back channel communications with the Left parties, and barring its Kerala unit, the CPI-M was inclined to support his candidature. There was also speculation whether the Left parties would field their own candidate, if the NDA decided to back Mamata's nominee, Kalam, making the contest triangular, thereby helping Pranab's candidature.
The Congress managers also opened dialogue with 'invisible' friends, across the political spectrum -- including those in the NDA-- to assess whether Pranab could romp home, with the second preferential votes of parties. They also got in touch with the smaller parties, which add upto almost one lakh votes in the electoral college out of a total of around 11 lakh votes.
At the end of the day, however, everything hinged on Mulayam, and whether he would support Pranab and whether the Congress would be able to wean away Mulayam from Mamata. This would make the UPA's position comfortable for Pranab.
Mulayam seemed to thaw -- there was a softening in his stance within hours of his announcing the PM, Kalam and Chatterjee trio as his and Mamata's preferences for President. There were statements from his camp that these names were not his 'final' view. Ram Gopal Yadav said, by way of an explanation, in the context of Mamata calling Kalam as 'our' candidate, that sometimes 'our' could be mistakenly used for 'mine', thereby distancing the party from Mamata's position. It seemed the SP leader was open to be persuaded, by the Congress, provided his terms were met.
Till the time of writing, it was not clear whether the SP had successfully struck a bargain with the Congress or it would continue to keep its cards close to its chest for much longer, may be even till June 24, when the prime minister returns from his G-20 meet. Pranab will have to preside over the Cabinet in his absence and is expected to resign as finance minister only after that.
The implications of the joint front forged by Mamata and Mulayam had not been lost on the Congress leaders -- that the M&M duo may well be angling for a mid-term poll, which might suit both. For, a failure to get its presidential nominee elected would mean the beginning of the end of the UPA government.
The fact is that the Congress was spurred into action -- prodded, ironically, by Mamata -- when it decided to close ranks.