New Delhi: Mulayam Singh Yadav, crucial to the survival of the UPA government, is making the Congress squirm. He co-starred with Left leaders today in a massive protest in Delhi against the new reforms introduced by Dr Manmohan Singh. Like the Left and the BJP, the Samajwadi Party chief is also against opening India's vast retail sector to foreign super-chains and has attacked them publicly.
Mr Yadav walked to a police station with Left leaders like Sitaram Yechury and Prakash Karat to court arrest. But he pointed out that he did not share a stage with BJP leaders. I am supporting the government to stop communal forces. BJP se hamara koi vaasta nahi hai (We have no relationship with the BJP)."
Sources say that the regional powerhouse has indicated that he is not ready to be a part of attempts to bring down the government and force mid-term elections. Like the Left and the BJP, the Samajwadi Party chief is also against these reforms and has attacked them publicly. That doesn't mean that the Samajwadi Party won't cash in on the government's new vulnerability.
"Don't take our support for granted," Ram Gopal Yadav, a senior party leader and Mr Yadav's brother, warned earlier this week. The UPA is in a minority after its biggest ally, Mamata Banerjee, quit the government over last week's decisions to raise diesel prices, reduce the amount of subsidised cooking gas for households, and allow foreign giants like Wal-Mart to set up large retail outlets in India. Mr Yadav's party has 22 MPS, three more than Ms Banerjee. But his party has said it will not join the government, and that it will decide in the next few weeks whether to continue external support to the coalition.
In fact, Ram Gopal Yadav, said clearly that the party was prerparing its list of candidates for the 2014 elections, which is when they are due. But remarks like those - and there have been many - are political swagger that belie careful calculations. "Let the Congress get some wisdom," Mulayam Singh had said yesterday. "What have they given the people apart from corruption and rising prices?" he asked. (Read: Mid-term poll? Who is ready, who isn't)
But behind the scenes, sources in the Congress say that back-channel talks with the Samajwadi Party chief are showing results. After initially announcing that the party would meet today to decide whether to continue support to the UPA, the session has been deferred. Samajwadi Party sources say that their leaders are worried that the Congress' decline could strengthen the BJP and that may bring Narendra Modi to power.
Mr Yadav's party has often justified its support to the UPA as its contribution to ensuring that the "communal forces" of the BJP are restrained. Uttar Pradesh's large Muslim population is a crucial votebank for the Samajwadi Party. The BJP has been dithering over whether to pick Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate for the next general election. Mr Yadav wants to impede any plans that could help Mr Modi's ascension to the national centrestage.
There's also the fact that Mr Yadav's rival, Mayawati, has made it clear that she is firmly on the UPA's side for now. Since her humiliating defeat in Uttar Pradesh earlier this year - Mr Yadav's son, Akhilesh, powered the campaign and his party's victory and is now chief minister- Mayawati has found it expedient to team with the UPA on important policies. Though her party is opposed to FDI in retail, she is not participating in today's bandh or strike. She has 21 Lok Sabha MPs, just one less than Mr Yadav, and like him, she guaranteed her support to the UPA in a letter to the President when the government was formed. Even if Mr Yadav kills his support to the government, she can keep it in power. Mr Yadav is unlikely to take any move that would allow her that sort of prominence at the centre.
If that looks like a win-win for the Congress and the government, it will have to consider the fact that Mr Yadav could turn into a tougher opponent of reforms. He warned the government of a "bigger agitation" along with other parties if there is no rollback of its reform decisions. And he knows that with the Trinamool exiting, the Congress' options of allies to support it are also shrinking.
Mr Yadav's decision is important not only for the Congress' future, but also for the way the BJP will plan its next steps. The main opposition party reportedly feels that till the SP decides to ditch the Congress, the BJP will not be in a position to take political advantage of the situation. (Read: Why BJP can't take advantage of the Congress' crisis) As long as Mr Yadav keeps the UPA safe, any move to seek a special session of parliament or pushing for a confidence vote to test the UPA's strength could well back-fire.
(with inputs from Agencies)