Expect early LS elections next year

The suspense is over. Pranab Mukherjee seems certain to become the next President. The UPA coalition lacks the votes to ensure victory, but Mulayam Singh Yadav of the SP and Mayawati of the BSP have both offered to back him. This will give Mukherjee victory even if Mamata Banerjee splits from the UPA coalition.

Yet the political twists and turns last week were so convoluted that they sadly exposed the weaknesses of the UPA and damaged its credibility. Anybody thinking that a presidential victory will make the UPA stronger or better placed to pursue tough policies looks a hopeless optimist. Last week’s machinations make it doubtful whether the government will last its full term till May 2014. Other parties will probably force an early election in 2013.

On Thursday, Mulayam and Mamata joined hands to reject Mukherjee as a presidential candidate, and instead suggested three other candidates. This seemed to change all political equations. But the marriage of convenience lasted just one day. Then Mulayam switched sides and formally backed the Congress candidate, Mukherjee.

The real lesson of the episode was not that Mulayam was one with the Congress, but that he would ditch or support it as he pleased, without compunction. He would love to become Prime Minister, but time is running out for him since he is already 73 years old. His best and maybe only chance will come after the next general election. This could well see both the Congress and BJP losing ground, opening the way for a national coalition government led by regional parties. If the SP can replicate its assembly landslide in a general election, it could win 60 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats from Uttar Pradesh, making it by far the biggest regional party in Parliament. That would be an excellent launching pad for Mulayam to bid for prime ministership.

Remember, immediately after the March state election in Uttar Pradesh, when the SP won 224 seats against the Congress tally of just 28, there was talk of Mulayam trying to force an immediate general election to take advantage of the electorate’s anti-Congress mood. A senior politician noted that Mulayam Yadav and Mamata Banerjee had a common interest in an early parliamentary election: both could ride the momentum that had taken them to massive victories in their respectively state elections. If they waited till the general election fell due in 2014, that momentum would be lost, and might by then be replaced by anti-incumbency sentiment, to their grave disadvantage. Why not strike while the iron was hot?

However, the SP quickly ruled out an immediate general election. Its cadres and coffers were both exhausted after a long election campaign in UP, and the party needed time—up to a year— to rebuild its energies and cash balances. Till then, it was willing to support the UPA as and when the cost-benefit ratio looked good. The Congress wooed Mulayam relentlessly, and as a gesture allowed Dimple Yadav, Mulayam’s daughter-in-law, to win the Kannauj byelection uncontested. This temporarily brought the two closer. But it will not douse Mulayam’s prime ministerial ambitions for long.

Meanwhile, Mayawati’s BSP has become a minority partner in the Congress coalition government in Uttarakhand. However, the BSP there has just three seats and one minister. This is too slim a basis for a durable compact. The Congress and BSP are rivals in wooing the dalit and Muslim vote, and so are not natural allies. The Congress will happily do deals with both the SP and BSP, but sees the SP as a better match.

What about Mamata’s intentions? Since 2009, her 20 Lok Sabha seats have been crucial for giving the UPA a hairline majority in the Lok Sabha. This has enabled the lady to blackmail the government at will. She scotched the Teesta waters agreement with Bangladesh, forced the government to back down on foreign direct investment in multibrand retail, forced the government to change the railway minister and railway budget, and stalled land acquisition legislation.

Her truculence suggests she is ready to split away. She may think she will gain by dissociating herself from the Congress and its corruption-tainted image. She believes that in a fresh election, without Congress support, she will raise her Lok Sabha tally from 20 to 30 or more.

By the end of this year, both Mamata and Mulayam may decide the time is ripe to ditch Congress and force a general election. Last week, they joined hands against Congress on the presidential issue, but only for 24 hours. Next time, they may join hands long enough to topple the government and force an election.

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