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Tough going

UPA II has the numbers but it has to count them each time a vote takes place. And parties that swing between supporting to opposing roles will bargain hard on every occasion, writes Varghese K George. The UPA Alliance: Friends and Foes

delhi Updated: Apr 27, 2010 02:00 IST
Varghese K George

The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government managed to break an emerging consolidation of opposition parties and they will not press for voting on cut motions on the demand for grants on Tuesday.

That's for one day, but the next time could be different as the government – which has a bare simple majority of 273 in the Lok Sabha – is suddenly on a voting-to-voting existence. Each time voting takes place, the government will have to bet on some amount disunity in the opposition ranks and complete unity among its own. Not easy even for the best political managers.

"We will reach out to all right-thinking people," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said on Monday evening at Rashtrapati Bhawan on the sidelines of a function.

In May 2009, when the UPA retained power and the Congress increased its tally, things appeared set for a stable government for five years.

"First time in two decades, the ruling party has more than 200 seats and they should have been stronger," says Sitaram Yechury, Communist Party of India (Marxist) politburo member.

From a position of extraordinary strength, how have the Congress and its government suddenly hit this turbulence?

A sympathetic view of the situation is that the government risked weakness in arithmetic terms with a long-term perspective for the party and the government. Having won a second term with better numbers, the Congress decided that it's time to unleash itself from coalition compulsions.

"The women's reservation Bill, fiscal consolidation measures in the Budget, campaign against Maoists, etc. are part of a Congress attempt to pursue its own agenda," says a party leader who did not want to be named.

The women's reservation Bill set the party on a collision course with the RJD, SP and BSP and generated a good amount of discontent among its own members of Parliament.

"But the party saw this a risk worth taking," the leader says.

The party also wants to consolidate its position in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, much to the discomfort of friendly leaders such as Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh Yadav. The Congress knows that its growth can come only at the cost of regional friends and is willing to risk their hostility. Bihar will go to polls in November.

All do not agree.

"In the second coming, the Prime Minister has become less accessible and more stiff. Party general secretaries have become arrogant and work with the assumption that allies must be kept under check," a Congress MP says.

"The Congress leadership is not getting good feedback on the ground situation of politics. There is no consultation on anything and this government is not going to last its term at this rate," says Lalu Prasad.

"Unlike UPA I, UPA II doesn't have a structured agenda or a system of checks and balances," points out Yechury.

While the Congress seeks to be more assertive, opposition parties are responding accordingly and the old feeling of anti-Congressism may become the glue for the divergent groups.

"Right now, however, both the BJP and Left are playing the Opposition role and uniting on many issues, which makes the Opposition much more strong, and the government appears embattled. The second feature of UPA II has been supporting regional allies such as the SP, RJD, TMC and BSP taking turns to play the Opposition's role. A rising Congress threatens these regional players in the long run, and even as they support the government from inside or outside, they keep opposing it to retain their positions – which are threatened by the Congress – on their home turfs. This again makes the government look more vulnerable than it should have in the present numbers game in Parliament," points out Arshad Alam of the Centre for Nehru Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia.

With inputs from Saroj Nagi and Nagendar Sharma