For a man whose party helps keep the UPA in power, Mulayam Singh Yadav appears determined to prove he's on a different team. After referring to his Samajwadi Party as the opposition yesterday, he went further today, slamming the Congress for financial scams, especially the coal swindle that has forced the government on the defensive amid allegations of entrenched corruption.
Other leaders of Mr Yadav's party, gathered in Kolkata for a party convention, made things more awkward for the Congress by declaring they see little political ability in Rahul Gandhi. And then, in the evening, Mr Yadav's son, 39-year-old Akhilesh, met Mamata Banerjee, whose membership in the UPA often skids towards an expiry date. Both just thanked each other at a quick media conference at the end of the meeting. "After coming to Kolkata, I would not have felt good not meeting Didi. It was necessary to meet her,"said Yadav junior after the meeting that lasted for 45 minutes. (Read)
But today's meeting suggests both allies could be willing to explore new equations. Just a few months ago, the Congress managed to blunt a growing closeness between Mr Yadav and Ms Banerjee ahead of the Presidential elections.
"At the Centre, the Congress is depressed. There are so many scams. One minister has given coal blocks to his relatives. The day another man became Coal Minister, he gave coal to his relatives," Mr Yadav said, while making his intentions clear. "The reputation of the Congress has suffered. The BJP also cannot progress any more. So who will take charge? The Samajwadi Party has that responsibility," Mr Yadav said in Kolkata, urging his party workers to ensure that they get enough seats in the next general election to ensure that the government at the Centre cannot be formed without them.
Attacking Rahul Gandhi, party general secretary Mohan Singh said that he was unable to lead the country politically. "We have heard little from him on national issues. How (can we) say that the country will be safe in his hands?" Mr Singh asked.
Mr Singh also said that the Samajwadi Party was unlikely to bail out the UPA government if its allies desert them the next time. The party provides external support to the Congress-led coalition at the Centre and has bailed out the government during crucial legislation. The Congress relies on his Lok Sabha MPs to help rescue the government if an unreliable ally like Mamata Banerjee should opt out of the UPA government. It may have to reconsider that.
Reacting to the Samajwadi Party's comments, Congress spokesperson Rashid Alvi said, "I don't know what Mulayamji
has said but I can tell you that sometime back when we released our report card, he was present at the function, standing next to the PM."
The Samajwadi Party has also made it clear that it is blueprinting a coalition as an alternative to the Congress and the BJP for the general election in 2014. "We have sown the seeds for a Third Front," said Mr Singh, referencing a recent protest that the Samajwadi Party held outside Parliament recently along with the Left, the Telugu Desam Party, and the DMK, which participates in the ruling coalition at the Centre.
"The third set of parties are there but in different states. Let them come together. Then both Congress and BJP will be blown away," he added. Though Mr Singh said that Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress was a major regional outfit which his party would talk to, he also kept his lines open with the Left, with which his party has had traditional ties. Ms Banerjee and the Left are traditional rivals in West Bengal.
The symbolism of the Samajwadi Party choosing Ms Banerjee's capital to criticise the government will also not be lost on the ruling party. Ms Banerjee has been the Congress' toughest ally, and has often positioned herself more in the Opposition than as a party that participates in the government at the Centre and Congress leaders have openly said that they count more on Mulayam Singh's support than on that of the unpredictable Ms Banerjee.
The UPA, which has tenuous numbers in Parliament, has in fact seen the Samajwadi Party's 21 Lok Sabha MPs as a counter to the 19 that Ms Banerjee has, whenever it has looked like she will pull out of government.
The last time Mr Yadav and Ms Banerjee appeared together, they gave the Congress a shock in the run-up to the Presidential elections earlier this year, by saying that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was a good candidate for President. It was seen as an indication that allies had lost faith in the PM and amounted to public humiliation, though Mr Yadav was won over by the Congress eventually.
(With PTI inputs)