Saturday, June 16, 2012

Mamata's historic blunder

By Amulya Ganguli 
Even as Pranab Mukherjee basks in the sunshine of an almost certain victory in the presidential election, there are inevitably a number of losers, such as P.A. Sangma, who banked on the perception of the Congress's political weakness and habitual dithering to fish in troubled waters. But, the biggest among them is Mamata Banerjee, who has undoubtedly made the most egregious mistake of her career.

Coming on top of her other follies as chief minister - intolerance of dissent, inability to control her unruly cadres, lacking a game plan for the state's development - her latest bungle is bound to haunt her for a long time, especially because she tried to prevent a fellow Bengali from rising to the country's highest constitutional office.

What is more, she tried to do so not because of any ideological kink, like the roadblock put up by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M)'s Prakash Karat and his supporters in the politbureau against Jyoti Basu becoming the prime minister in 1996, which the then West Bengal chief minister called a "historic blunder". Instead, Mamata was guided solely by her petty, personal angularities. As a result, what could have been a routine exercise involving adherence to coalitional loyalties turned into an unedifying spectacle of hectoring, subterfuge and double-talk.

Yet, none of this political vaudeville would have occurred if she had simply agreed, or disagreed, with Sonia Gandhi's list of two names for the president's post - those of Pranab Mukherjee and Hamid Ansari. If the Trinamool Congress chief disagreed, as her subsequent actions showed, she could have informed the Congress president accordingly and, as political propriety demanded, announced her decision to leave the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA).

But, such a simple observance of norms was apparently alien to Mamata's volatile nature. So, she chose to remain in the UPA - while daring the Congress to oust her - but still walked over to what could be deemed a parallel, if not a rival, group and announced the names of three other candidates, including the prime minister's - to rub salt in the Congress's wounds, as it were. And the reason for all this play-acting was her personal prejudice against Mukherjee, presumably because the latter had not treated her with adequate respect when she was in the Congress. Nor perhaps later when her rabble-rousing tactics enabled her to rout the CPI(M) and gain huge popular acclaim in West Bengal. That her popularity is still widespread is evident from her party's success in recent elections in the state. But, there is little doubt that the extent of the dent in it which has been caused by her display of pique against an elderly political colleague will become evident in course of time.

What made her adopt such an uncompromising position is difficult to say. But, it is not impossible that having had her way in a number of confrontations with the centre - on foreign investment in the retail and aviation sectors, land acquisition, the setting up of the National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC), pension funds, et al - she apparently thought that she could browbeat it on the matter of the presidential nominee also. That she was working to a plan in this respect was evident, first, from her dismissive references to Mukherjee several weeks ago when she called him a "son of the world" when asked whether he was a son of Bengal; and, secondly, from her decision to be in touch with the Samajwadi Party (SP) before and after her meeting with Sonia Gandhi.

Why the SP initially fell for her strange, even infantile, tactics is not clear unless it simply wanted to keep the centre off-balance for a while. On Mamata's part, by including Somnath Chatterjee's name in the list of candidates drawn up along with Mulayam Singh Yadav, she obviously wanted to atone for her decision to oppose Mukherjee. The choice of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was a part of the typically cynical Muslim-appeasing tactics of Indian politicians. Regrettably, the former president, too, played along probably because he is too simple-minded to detect their cynicism.

But, the house of cards which Mulayam and Mamata were building was too fragile to withstand the gusts of realpolitik. It didn't take long for the far more experienced Mulayam to understand that none of the trio of Kalam, Manmohan Singh and Chatterjee will be acceptable to anyone as president. Unfortunately for her, Mamata did not see the writing on the wall although the SP's functionaries had begun singing a different tune even before she left Delhi for Kolkata. Now, she is in a quandary.

If she stays on in the UPA, it will be at the cost of her self-respect, especially now when there are bound to be murmurs in her own party at her immaturity. But, she will be isolated as never before if she leaves the UPA. Although she was all alone when she fought the CPI(M) for three decades, that was when her political stars were rising, even if unknown to herself. Now, they seem to be sinking.

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