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Political Pitch

Head-on coalition

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The spat between the Congress and the M & M duo of Mamata Banerjee and Mulayam Singh Yadav over the choice of a nominee for the presidential election unfolded like a Greek tragedy. Bloated egos and the petty politics of one-upmanship turned what should have been a smooth consensus building exercise into a fratricidal war. There can be no winners, only losers, after so much bloodletting, even if the Congress succeeds in getting its man into Rashtrapati Bhavan.

The irony is that the confrontation was entirely avoidable. It arose from bad politics and poor handling by the Congress which seems to have forgotten the art of coalition management in the second coming of the UPA. Consider this. The Congress began consultations for a consensus UPA candidate for president almost a month ago. Defence minister A K Antony was despatched to Chennai with much fanfare to sound out DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi. He ran two names past the Tamil leader, finance minister Pranab Mukherjee and vice president Hamid Ansari.

After he reported back to Sonia Gandhi, the Congress president met with NCP chief Sharad Pawar. Strangely, there was no visible attempt to tap Mamata, who is the Congress party's largest partner in the UPA, or Mulayam, whose Samajwadi Party is the third largest voting bloc in the electoral college after the Congress and the BJP. In fact, Mamata continued to be snubbed on her demand for a bailout package for West Bengal's tottering economy. And Mulayam was fobbed off with cheap gimmicks like a seat at the high table with Sonia and Rahul at UPA's third anniversary dinner.

At the best of times, Mamata and Mulayam are difficult partners. The former is pure emotion;the latter is as wily and devious as they come. And both have giantsized egos that need constant cosseting. It's not a pleasant task by any means but it was in the Congress party's interest to win them over. The last presidential poll saw an undignified, no-holds-barred contest between the UPA and NDA. This time, there seemed to be a genuine desire for a political consensus that would not plunge the country's highest position into controversy or rock the Manmohan Singh government, already under siege from corruption scandals and a plunging economy. That the Congress failed to deliver only reinforces the impression of incompetence and leadership paralysis that is haunting the party and its government and damaging India's international credentials.

The damage to UPA 2 from the current fracas is probably beyond repair. And it is a disaster that was waiting to happen. Unlike the institutional mechanisms created for consultation and coordination in UPA 1, the present dispensation is being run with the callous arrogance that the Congress is famous for. There is no coordination committee which can thrash out tricky political issues. There is no common minimum programme that functions as a framework for policy decisions. And although she is chairperson of the UPA, Sonia has remained withdrawn and aloof.

Contrast this to UPA 1. Then, Sitaram Yechury was a frequent visitor to 10 Janpath on behalf of the Left Parties. So was Dayanidhi Maran who was the interlocutor for the DMK. Ditto for RJD chief Lalu Yadav. He became quite a favourite at Sonia's dinner table. In fact, the joke in those days was that all three had become honorary Congressmen because of the close rapport they had developed with Sonia!

Mamata Banerjee, on the other hand, found herself virtually shut out of 10 Janpath. After her famous victory in West Bengal last year, she met Sonia just once. And although she tried for an appointment several times after that, she had to wait for over a year, till in fact the presidential elections loomed and Sonia was forced to start talking to the allies. It is curious that despite Mamata's legendary reputation as a headstrong troublemaker, Sonia did not appoint an interlocutor to liaise with her regularly. It was left to Pranab Mukherjee to handle her on a case-to-case basis although they do not see eye to eye on anything. Many believe that the bailout package for West Bengal tripped on their intense personal rivalry.

It takes considerable skill to run a coalition. The Sonia of UPA 1 seemed to have picked up some lessons from Atal Behari Vajpayee who ran his fractious NDA adeptly despite regular tussles between the BJP and its allies. Vajpayee made it a point to talk and meet with the leaders of his coalition partners regularly. And he was ably assisted by his principal secretary Brajesh Mishra and his chief troubleshooter Pramod Mahajan. Both established personal connections with troublesome leaders like Mamata, TDP chief Chandrababu Naidu and Shiv Sena's eccentric supremo, Bal Thackeray.

The diarchal system that Sonia evolved when she passed on the prime minister's post to Manmohan Singh in 2004 put the responsibility of managing the coalition on her shoulders. After doing an admirable job in the government's first tenure, she seems to have run out of steam. Mamata is undoubtedly a headache, as is Mulayam. But the burden of handling them rests on the coalition leader and her managers.

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