Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mamata Banerjee address a press conference on Wednesday in New Delhi. PTI
une 13, 2012 was not a good day for the Congress party. And although the principals are tight-lipped, those tracking such developments as part of their duties have presented (what they claim to be) a complete picture of the events of that day.
(According to these sources) Sonia Gandhi did not at any stage favour Pranab Mukherjee as the next President of India. She shared Rajiv Gandhi's diffidence about the political maestro from Bengal, which is why she chose his former subordinate, Manmohan Singh to be the Prime Minister in 2004 in preference to Mukherjee. That choice foretold the present crisis within the UPA, where Mukherjee-style persuasion was abandoned in favour of manipulation and fiat by a small coterie around Congress president and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi. A school of politics that Congress allies have finally found the courage to challenge.
"Sonia mentioned the Finance Minister's name only in the expectation that it would be shot down by the Trinamool Congress and by other parties that her managers have been in contact with, thus leaving her free to revert to her favoured choice, Vice-President Hamid Ansari," according to these sources. They added that "Sonia liked the charm of the Ansaris, as she is very influenced by genteel behaviour". Besides, the VP's performance in quashing debate on the Lokpal Bill in the Rajya Sabha on 30 December 2011 showed that he could be relied upon to stick to the script given to him by Congress managers. However, Sonia did not "anticipate the opposition to Ansari's name that she encountered in the UPA," opposition not unrelated to the Vice-President's role in the 30 December RS debate.
Sonia knew in advance that Mamata Banerjee would be hostile to Mukherjee's candidature, given the abuse that the Finance Minister's followers have been spewing on the West Bengal Chief Minister recently. A favour repaid with interest by TMC leaders, who routinely call the Finance Minister "Delhi's ambassador to Bengal", when not permitting themselves still more vituperative epithets. Her refusal to make the FM's son Abhijit a minister in the state Cabinet could not, also, have helped to improve relations between the two. "The feud is personal and has gone on for decades," a source mentioned.
According to these sources, the fact that Sonia Gandhi mentioned Hamid Ansari's name as a possible alternative to Mukherjee was to ensure that a consensus get formed on choosing the VP's name over that of Mukherjee. Instead, this gave Mamata the signal that she was waiting for, which was that Sonia was not serious about Pranab's candidature. "This made Mamata believe that there would not be serious consequences were she to put forward the other names that she had already discussed with Mulayam Singh Yadav". And why was the SP supremo willing to play by the same script as Mamata? He had been given information from within the CBI that the agency was preparing to chargesheet him in the disproportionate assets case in a few weeks' time. If that was what the Congress was planning for him, the SP chief would teach the party and its imperious leader a lesson.
The 13 June impromptu press conference of Mamata and Mulayam was "the moment of truth for Pranab Mukherjee", who realised that his party president's backing for him was just verbiage. After watching the TMC and SP chiefs reel off the names of Kalam, Manmohan and Somnath, a furious Mukherjee summoned Sonia Gandhi's Political Secretary Ahmed Patel and Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office V. Narayanasamy to his residence. When they arrived, he switched on the television, which was tuned to a Bengali channel where TMC leaders were making sarcastic references to him, and told Patel that he would be submitting his resignation from the Union Cabinet the next morning. He would not tolerate such a public humiliation. He was not a Manmohan Singh to meekly accept any barb thrown at him.
The Finance Minister was particularly cut up about being bracketed by Sonia with Hamid Ansari, a person whom he saw as "another Manmohan Singh, a lightweight from the bureaucracy". He asked Ahmed Patel why Sonia had no second name in mind when she proposed Manmohan Singh as PM in 2004 and Pratibha Patil as President of India in 2007. "Why was I alone given this honour?" he asked sarcastically.
All efforts by Ahmed Patel and Narayanasamy at pacifying the Finance Minister failed. A few minutes before midnight, Ahmed Patel telephonically briefed Sonia Gandhi on the developments. She said that she would sleep on the matter. Next morning, after a few more consultations with Patel and with a senior official whom she trusted, Sonia reached the conclusion that a resignation by Pranab Mukherjee would pull the government apart. In weeks, she was planning to announce that Rahul Gandhi would take over as working president of the party. She could not allow such a crisis to develop before the heir's takeover of his inheritance. Reluctantly, Sonia finally reversed herself and threw her support firmly behind Mukherjee, making sure that this was announced publicly.
Given his acceptability within the political spectrum, Pranab Mukherjee would almost certainly be the next President of India. Unlike F.A. Ahmed, V.V. Giri or Pratibha Patil, he would not be a yesperson of the Nehru family but a Head of State with very much a mind of his own.