The country knows that West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is mercurial, simple, straight, temperamental. No one has, however, accused her of being diplomatic. In contrast, Sonia Gandhi is sedate, complex, even mysterious. She can never be accused of being simple. From what happened after these two women of telling contrast met on Wednesday last to discuss the UPA candidate for presidency, it does not need a seer to guess what would have happened at their meeting. Obviously, Sonia must have strategically mentioned Mamata’s fellow Bengali Pranab Mukherjee’s name as the first choice of the Congress and Hamid Ansari as the second choice thinking that Mamata would have no option but to toe the Congress line, because she could not afford the political cost of opposing Pranab Mukherjee’s name, nor could she afford to reject Ansari’s name, as that would amount to saying ‘no’ to a Muslim. Sonia disclosed the names to Mamata only to fix Mamata on both — Pranab Mukherjee whose name Mamata cannot reject because of the Bengal factor and Ansari because of the Muslim factor. Mamata, however, is not one who would like to be fixed like that.
Within minutes of their meeting, Mamata Banerjee disclosed to the media that Pranab Mukherjee was the Congress (read Sonia’s) first choice and Ansari, the second, and she said that she and Mulayam would discuss the names. A shocked Sonia Gandhi must have been dismayed at how her acute diplomacy had let her down. She would never have thought that Mamata would make public not only the names but also the order of the choice, namely Pranab first and Ansari next. In the next one hour, things became worse. Mamata struck an unprecedented deal with Mulayam Singh. The duo shortlisted three names of equal preference: Abdul Kalam, Manmohan Singh and Somnath Chatterjee. The inclusion of Chatterjee was to handle the Bengali sentiments. The mention of Manmohan Singh was a mischief, raising suspicions of a strategic deal of Sonia with Mulayam to get rid of Singh to bring in A K Antony. However, the real and troubling name was Kalam’s. To recall, Mulayam was the first to endorse Kalam in 2002 when Atal Behari Vajpayee had proposed his name.
Kalam’s name to Sonia is like a red rag to a bull for reasons now no one would question. Mulayam has let the cat out of the bag in his interview to Prabhu Chawla. He claims that he had suggested Kalam’s name only because Sonia was undecided — or not keen? — on Pranab. Mulayam has admitted that after he and Mamata had met the media, he had had a one-to-one meeting with Sonia in which she agreed — or was forced to agree? — to Pranab. Mamata-Mulayam’s Kalam bomb compelled Sonia to give up the ‘secular’ option of Ansari and opt for Pranab. In the process, Mulayam got two mangoes with one stone. He made Mamata irrelevant to the UPA and made himself most relevant. Also, Mulayam has just stopped short of saying that Pranab was his candidate, not Sonia’s! Worse still, Sonia was put on the defensive by Mulayam and Mamata, forcing the Congress to deny that the prime minister was being dismissed by elevating him as president.
The politically well-informed know how much does Sonia Gandhi distrust Pranab Mukherjee. This distrust dates back to the days of Rajiv Gandhi. That Pranab had a mind of his own was evident when he was clear after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, that he, as the Number Two to her in the Cabinet, should be the interim prime minister as per the constitutional convention established after the demise of Pundit Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri when Gulzarilal Nanda was sworn in as the interim prime minister. However, President Giani Zail Singh took the unconventional step of inviting Rajiv Gandhi, who was just a general secretary of the Congress and not a minister in Cabinet, to become interim prime minister.
Pranab Mukherjee, who, even though for his own benefit, threw the rule book at the Gandhi family, instantly became the persona non grata to the family. In fact all Indira loyalists — R K Dhavan, M L Fotedar, and others — had become untouchables for the new regime manned by Arun Singhs, Captain Sharmas, and Quattrocchis. Additionally, for committing that unpardonable sin, Pranab was sent into wilderness for almost five years. He was forced to quit the Congress. He started his own party — Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress. In 1989, after being badly hit by the Bofors tornado, Rajiv invited all the oldies of the Indira days, including R K Dhavan and Pranab Mukherjee back in the party to help him. That was how Pranab came back. Still the family did not consider him loyal enough.
If, after her name was shot down by President Abdul Kalam in 2004, Sonia Gandhi did not think of Pranab for the office of prime minister, it was because Pranab Mukherjee had a mind of his own, which Manmohan Singh could not be accused of. That is precisely the reason that she wouldn’t want Pranab as president now, if she had that choice. She would rather prefer someone like Pratibha Patil, a household person of the Gandhi family. However 2012 is unlike 2007 when she had the halo of being Saint Sonia. It is now impossible for her to thrust a subaltern of hers on the country. She has only formally announced Pranab’s name for the presidency. He had announced himself long back. He had decided to become the president, regardless of her wish. He openly spoke of walking in Rashtrapathi Bhavan lawns. He began silently contacting all, Mulayam and BJP included. Everyone knew that he was not Sonia Gandhi’s choice. Inch by inch, he was forcing her to choose him, finally reducing her choice to himself.
After all he was trained under the most wily politician that the country ever produced — Indira Gandhi. He was part of her Emergency time Gang of Four. He lived down that infamy by losing the favour of the family. Apart from his role during Emergency, he has had a deeper than normal association with the Ambanis. He would, however, claim that he was not more close to them than either Indira Gandhi or Rajiv Gandhi. He was, and is perhaps, no saint. But certainly he is no subaltern of Sonia Gandhi. The media says Sonia has outsmarted the opposition. It is Pranab Mukherjee who has outsmarted Sonia Gandhi!
S Gurumurthy is a well-known commentator on political and economic issues.