A day after he unnerved the Congress by describing his Samajwadi Party as the opposition, Mulayam Singh Yadav went further today, slamming the Congress for financial scams, especially the coal swindle that has forced the government on the defensive.
"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," he 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.
Mr Yadav's party provides external support to the Congress-led coalition at the Centre. He has bailed out the government during crucial legislation. But his comments will be seen as proof that he is trying to blueprint a Third Front pivoted on his party ahead of the general elections in 2014. Yesterday, his brother, Ram Gopal, said, "We pray that there's a third front."
Mr Yadav is certainly in a position of strength. His son, 39-year-old Akhilesh, delivered Uttar Pradesh for the Samajwadi Party with a strident victory in the state elections, and was made Chief Minister so that Mr Yadav could focus on the national political landscape.
During the recent Parliament session that was paralysed by allegations that the government implemented a coal policy that cost the nation thousands of crores, he held a short protest at Parliament along with leaders of the Left, the Telugu Desam Party, and the DMK, which participates in the ruling coalition. The opposition BJP wants the PM to resign, taking moral responsibility for "coal-gate." Mr Yadav has not gone that far, but his party has this week been ferocious in targeting Coal Minister Sriprakash Jaiswal and the government.
In the case of the Coal Minister, the Samajwadi party, like the BJP, alleges that Mr Jaiswal signed away coal blocks to private companies in violation of basic guidelines. Mr Jaiswal has denied the charges.
When asked about Mr Yadav's statements, Congress General Secretary Digvijaya Singh said, "Mulayam Singh is a veteran leader and I do not want to comment on what he said. If he has any evidence, he should hand it over to the CBI."
The symbolism of Mr Yadav choosing Mamata 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.
In Kolkata yesterday, Mr Yadav had several good things to say about Ms Banerjee. He called her hard-working and a fighter, though he also said she was stubborn. Ram Gopal Yadav however said whether Mamata Banerjee would be part of a Third Front was a "hypothetical question."
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.
That time, Mr Yadav was won over soon enough by the Congress and he was given pride of place during a dinner for the party's allies at the Prime Minister's residence.