Not since V.V. Giri’s election in 1969 has a Presidential election become such a game of smoke and mirrors. Giri’s narrow defeat of the official Congress candidate Neelam Sanjiva Reddy heralded the phase of Indira Gandhi’s dominance over the polity. The thrusts and parries that have preceded the current election may well signify the return to a more unsettled kind of politics that many thought India had left behind in the 1990s.

Mulayam Singh Yadav’s shrewd manoeuvring may have got him his pound of flesh but the soap opera like twists and turns in the Mulayam-Mamata show over Pranab Mukherjee’s candidature this week provide an early glimpse of what the near-future may look like. The certainties of the Vajpayee-Manmohan years over the past decade and a half seem to have lulled us into believing that the central axis of Indian politics will somehow always remain structured around two rival alliances, each dominated by the two principal political parties. The machinations over this contest for Raisina Hill seem to be heralding that this phase of certainties may now be over.

Even if Pranab Mukherjee makes it comfortably in the end to Rashtrapati Bhawan the central lesson of this political drama is that we are heading into a new-normal, a return to the uncertainties of the 1990s-style United Front days where the fulcrum of power may well be held by the smaller regional players, with the national parties remaining powerful enough but not dominant enough to impose their will. If all goes on schedule, the next general election is still two years away but the current uncertainty in Delhi is a result of the fact that the political balance of the country has already shifted.

The muscle-flexing on Presidential names is essentially a reflection of this vacuum: created by weakened and direction-less Congress, a divided BJP that is finding it difficult to take over the space being ceded by the ruling party and ascendant regional parties that see their opportunities rising. This has opened up new spaces and rewards for old fashioned bargaining and political dextrousness in a manner that is already beginning to resemble the daily jostling of the United Front days. It makes for entertaining cloak-and-dagger politics that will delight journalists but will also mean more uncertainty and less room to manoeuvre on important decisions.

Ironically, Mamata Banerjee’s grandstanding left the Congress with no choice but to stare her down and put all its might behind Pranab Mukherjee. But this opening of the fractures in the UPA has also opened up a window of opportunity. A successfully managed electoral campaign for Raisina Hill will give the party a much-needed shot in the arm, while also opening up the chance to shake up things in the government with some new energy. If ever there was a moment for a reset, this is it.

If the by-election results around the country last week are any indication, the Congress will know it has nothing to lose. Even more striking than the expected reversals in the Andhra Pradesh by-elections is the huge margins of victory for the rebel YSR Congress and the fact that the Congress did not even finish as the second highest party in more than half the 18 assembly seats that went to polls. The party’s meagre haul of just 2 seats (it held 16 of these 18 before the break with Jagan Reddy) is a reality check on what the next full election in the state may look like. Andhra has garnered headlines because of the sheer number of its bye-elections but there are other straws in the wind too. Of assembly seats in ten states that have had by-elections in 2012, the party has won only one: in Kerala.

The Congress probably has a window of six months or so for some repair-work on its image in government before the impending inertia and populist pressures of an impending general election completely envelop Delhi’s political class. It really is now or never. Else, the future may already be here.

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