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Sonia Gandhi makes a power statement with lunch for allies

July 18, 2012 18:12 IST
After many months the UPA leadership seemed to exude a sense of confidence that they could get the better of an adverse situation in which they have found themselves for the last two years, writes Neerja Chowdhury

Wednesday's luncheon hosted by United Progressive Alliance chairperson Sonia Gandhi on the eve of the presidential elections to seek support for Pranab Mukherjee, was nothing short of a  power statement made by the Congress.

It was after many months that the UPA leadership seemed to exude a sense of confidence that they could get the better of an adverse situation in which they have found themselves for the last two years.

In what could also be a foretaste of things to come, and just before the luncheon meeting, Sonia Gandhi  referred to Rahul Gandhi, hinting at a larger role he may soon come to play, when she said that he would decide what this role should be.

In the way the Congress has handled the difficulties around the presidential and the vice presidential polls, the 127-year-old party has once again demonstrated that the collectivity called the Congress has not lost its touch as far as political management goes, provided its leaders move in step.

The message was clear: At the end of the day, we are the party, for all our faults, most adept at the art of doing "raj kaaj" (rulership). In all likelihood, this is going to be one of the key messages that the party is going to flog in the months to come, in the run-up to the 2014  elections.

Only weeks ago, Opposition leaders were gleefully claiming that given the existing political arithmetic, there was no way the Congress  would be able to get its candidates through and that the Mulayam-Mamata duo held the key to the Prez-VP polls.

But the Congress first managed to break the "M&M" alliance, then firmed up Mayawati's support -- the Supreme Court's verdict giving her a clean chit in the disproportionate assets' case could not have come at a better time -- and finally compelled Mamata Banerjee to come out in support of Pranab Mukherjee, which must have been very difficult for West Bengal's volatile  chief minister.

In the final analysis, the Congress ended up having the support of all its partners and "outside allies". It also gave the impression that the UPA had regrouped and emerged stronger, while its rival formations -- whether it was the NDA or the Left Front -- had got divided right down the middle over its presidential candidate.

With "M-3" (Mamata, Mulayam and Mayawati) on board again, the Congress is sighing with relief, comfortable in the position that if two of the three parties stay by its side at any given time, on any issue, it need not have cause to worry. The lack of trust among all these three parties today makes it easier for the Congress to manage them. Significantly, Sonia Gandhi managed to get representatives of all of them, the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and Trinamool Congress. In an attempt to reach out to Mamata again, she had called up the Trinamool chief  to invite her to the Wednesday "power" meet.

This is a development which should hearten the prime minister, who wants to move ahead with several of the economic reform measures he has wanted to push but has not been able to do, inviting flak from around the world as an 'Underachiever' PM. He can now pursue some of these stalled measures with the support of the SP and BSP, even if the Trinamool Congress, which has been chastened, has reservations. The fact that Banerjee has eaten humble pie, to support Mukherjee, is an indicator that she has no plans -- not at the moment, at any rate -- to move out of the UPA.

As Banerjee herself pointed out, it was the prime minister who spoke to her personally urging her to put her weight behind the UPA's presidential candidate. It is another matter that Mamata felt so isolated by the end of it all, that she failed even to make political capital of her turnaround. She did not even say that she was supporting Pranab in deference to Bengali pride or to oppose the "communal forces". All she could say -- and this was obviously what she felt -- was that she had no other option and was doing it with a heavy heart.

It says something for the way the Congress managers played their cards that Mamata felt cornered enough to plump for the man who had made her weep and see red, and who she had so solemnly vowed to oppose. Pranab Mukherjee had not even called her up personally to seek her support, but had moved through his secretary or party colleagues to ask for an appointment to see her -- a point that was belaboured by Trinamool leaders.

The opinion of the Bengali bhadralok, the fear of her partymen cross-voting, the Communist Party of India-Marxist gravitating closer to the Congress, and her being no closer to the financial package she has so badly wanted for her state, were some of the factors that led to her volte face. There is every indication to suggest that the PM may be more responsive to her demands than was Pranab Mukherjee, and that must bring her some consolation!
Neerja Chowdhury in New Delhi