WHEN WEST BENGAL CHIEF MINISTER Mamata Banerjee announced her party’s support for UPA presidential candidate Pranab Mukherjee last month after much resistance, she did not fail to add she was doing so with a “heavy heart”. Outmanoeuvred by the Congress and clearly short of options, the usually combative Mamata was forced to throw in the towel. After her audacious proposal to field Manmohan Singh as the UPA candidate, which Sonia Gandhi simply laughed off, Mamata had pitched for APJ Abdul Kalam and then Bengal’s disgruntled Leftist, former Speaker Somnath Chatterjee. Perhaps realising that defeat would be inevitable, Kalam backed off from the race, as did Mamata’s first choice for vice-president, former Bengal governor Gopal Krishna Gandhi. Both politely thanked the Bengal tigress for her support but said they would not contest.
UP strongman Mulayam Singh Yadav, who had initially backed Mamata’s presidential choices, abandoned her quickly, and as decisively as he had pulled the rug from under the feet of the Left in the rundown to the 2008 trust vote on the Indo-US nuclear deal. Her bête noire, the CPI (M)-led Left, used the situation to their advantage in Bengal, stirring things up by backing Pranab Mukherjee as well as the UPA’s vice-presidential nominee, Hamid Ansari. If Mamata had intended to further consolidate her support base amongst Bengal’s Muslims by pitching for Kalam as president, surely she should have realised that it was unwise to oppose Hamid Ansari, who, like Pranab Mukherjee, has strong Bengal connections.
As events played out, Mamata found herself in danger of isolating herself both within and outside the UPA—her only two choices, if she pursued the confrontation, would be to quit the UPA and go over to the NDA, or stand her ground alone. Neither appeared attractive enough for a regional party like the Trinamool Congress. Additionally, whichever path she chose, Mamata could also not afford to underestimate the dissent of her own party leaders. After all, a key factor in maintaining her authority has been the loyalty of her cadre. For most of her top lieutenants, who, like her, started off in the Congress, the option of returning to the parent party is a straightforward one, which they can exercise if they find Mamata’s politics unacceptable, or unfavourable for their political fortunes.