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Jaya’s trial for a non-Congress front

Take it, between now and 2014 - and a snap poll for the next Lok Sabha cannot be altogether ruled out at this stage - the AIADMK leader Jayalalithaa wants to ride a non-Congress front to take on the faltering Congress-led UPA, with little to boast in governance as it competes its first three years. She has already positioned herself at the centre of a co-ordinated uprising against the Centre’s 'inroads' into their autonomy by chief ministers of non-Congress ruled states.

Her sponsorship of P A Sangma’s candidature for the Presidency, jointly with Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, on 17 May, needs to be viewed in this context, and it followed some quick developments – the former Lok Sabha Speaker himself proposing that a person belonging to tribes should be given the opportunity for the first time to become Head of State. Apparently, he followed his statement from his home with consultations with Patnaik, chief minister of a state with a sizeable population of tribes, before heading for Chennai.

Interestingly, as the Congress and Sonia Gandhi in particular had put the presidential contest into slow motion in the midst of other immediate challenges – and major regional groups like SP and BSP, whose support from outside enabled UPA to scrape through on crucial occasions, were left in suspense about the ruling UPA choice for the next Head of Sate – the AIADMK leader jumped ahead by sponsoring Sangma, two days after the latter called on her at the Secretariat (15 May) along with his daughter Agatha Sangma, Minister of State for rural development.

A camaraderie between the two chief ministers Jayalalithaa and Naveen Patnaik, was in full flow during Patnaik’s visit to Chennai on 11 May in connection with the foundation-stone laying ceremony for an Odisha Bhavan for which the AIADMK government has given five grounds. Obviously, his visit was availed of for consultations on the emerging political developments and the presidential contest.

Jayalalithaa, who laid the foundation stone for Odisha Bhavan in the presence of Patnaik, recalled how the late Biju Patnaik had left behind a legacy of 'respect, cooperation and mutual affection' on his visit to Tamil Nadu in early 1990s (when she was chief minister for the first time) and said she shared that continuing bond with Naveen Patnaik. Both referred to the historical ties that bound Odisha and Tamil Nadu dating back to the Chola dynasty in the south.

Till Sangma’s calling on her on 15 May, Jayalalithaa had struck a neutral posture saying 'no concrete proposal' had been put forward by anybody to her party. Nor had AIADMK finalised its stand with regard to presidential elections, when asked whether her party would extend support to finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, prominently figuring among possible candidates.

Once she proposed Sangma for the president’s post, she has lost no time in vigorously advocating his candidature. After a statement appealing to all parties 'to rise above political considerations and support' Sangma’s candidature, the AIADMK leader worked the phones hectically during the weekend to talk to leaders of non-Congress parties,  BJP, CPM, CPI, TDP – L K Advani, Prakash Karat, A B Bardhan and Chandrababu Naidu. She also talked to Samajwadi party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav and Shiromani Akali Dal leader Parkash Singh Badal.

But so far, other parties have not reacted to Jayalalithaa’s proposal. Jayalalithaa told the non-Congress leaders that Sangma, hailing from North-East and belonging to tribes, fulfilled all qualifications to become the president. She asked all the leaders she spoke to, to support Sangma, 'a capable person'. One of the AIADMK ministers said that Jayalalithaa had made a 'smart move' when UPA and NDA leaders were yet to identify their choices.

One view is that if UPA candidate is not acceptable to BJP, the latter could support Sangma as the next best candidate. Sangma has not drawn support even within his NCP and its leader Sharad Pawar is on record that his party, as UPA ally, cannot take an independent stand and would go with the collective decision of UPA.

Of the other two power-sharing allies in UPA, the role of Mamata Banerjee, the powerful West Bengal leader, will be highly significant and she has not spoken out on the subject as yet. The DMK leader Karunanidhi had let it be known to the Congress emissary A K Antony that the party would support whoever is finally selected by UPA, taking everything into account.

Jayalalithaa had till 20 May not broached the subject with Mamata Banerjee or the other influential BSP leader Mayawati who has said that her party would first want to see whom UPA and NDA (BJP-led) would like to field. 'We will support a candidate who suits the line of our party’s movement,' Mayawati said. Most parties have preferred to await the next moves of the Congress (Sonia Gandhi) in the selection process and its exploratory efforts on consensus-building.

In any case, Jayalalithaa has staked her reputation by her sponsorship of Sangma, which her partymen cite as 'Amma' rising above regionalism, though he has been projected as a leader from Scheduled Tribes. For all her 'intensified efforts' her party claims, none of the leaders has positively reacted so far. But the AIADMK and Naveen Patnaik’s BJD becomes the first parties to make a formal announcement of a candidate. This could become a test for her national ambitions which could come into play in the next Lok Sabha elections with her hopes to capture most of the 40 seats.

For the Congress, both Pranab Mukherjee and the Vice-President Hamid Ansari have been mentioned as likely choices. Neither the Left nor SP is known to be averse to any one of two candidates on the Congress table. The Congress is unlikely to go beyond these two names, as of now, and in any case Sangma had fallen out of favour with the Congress long ago, having distanced himself with a few others from Sonia Gandhi raising the issue of her foreign origin.

Sangma works hard to rally support of legislators in North-East. For AIADMK with 150 MLAs and 14 MPs, its total of votes for the presidential election would be 36,312. Certainly, with the configuration of political parties, at national and regional levels, arithmetic would be a decisive factor and this only underlines the critical importance of consensus. Now that Jayalalithaa has set the ball rolling, the Congress and BJP would bestir themselves afresh in consensus-building efforts for the presidential election due in July.
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