In the guise of registering protest over the seating arrangement at meetings of the Union cabinet after Pranab Mukherjee's exit, Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) has raised issues that might find resonance among other allies over the Congress's handling of the coalition. In its
second incarnation, the UPA inexplicably expended the coordination/steering panel that served as a consultative forum for alliance partners and outside supporters, especially the CPI(M)-led Left Front that parted company on the issue of the Indo-US nuclear deal. It's about time the Congress revived the arrangement when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is believed to be bracing up for long-pending economic reforms.
Institutionalised consultations will save the Congress from charges of unilateralism, help temper policy and lend decision-making a veneer of participation. It will also deny other UPA stakeholders any excuse for going public with their grievances. It's a fact that political positions accrue from the numbers the constituent parties have in Parliament. But coalition politics isn't as much about logic or propriety as about striking hard bargains the regional parties have gotten used to in this era of a fragmented polity. The discordant note that Mr Pawar struck could, therefore, have more to it than meets the eye. He raised, so to speak, the red flag at a time the Congress is set to install its candidates in the presidency and the office of the vice-president besides according Rahul Gandhi a larger de jure profile in its affairs. There's also a strong possibility of a reshuffle that could mark a generational shift in the council of ministers with the elevation of Young Turks languishing in junior slots.
From the NCP's perspective, there couldn't then have been a better opportunity to seek return favours for extending unstinted support to the Congress nominee in the presidential race. It remains to be seen whether efforts to mollify Mr Pawar would have a domino effect on other alliance partners, notably Mamata Banerjee, whose brinkmanship in the presidential elections led to her isolation in the UPA. Compared to the NCP's nine, the Trinamool Congress has 19 members in the Lok Sabha. Allies might at times be fastidious and unreasonable. But it will be futile and perilous for the Congress to stand on prestige when it needs to rustle up support not just among allies but from across the political spectrum for key policy initiatives. It must not dither even if it means forsaking gubernatorial offices or adjusting allies in key Cabinet committees such as the one on security. Politics, after all, is a game of possibility and expediency.