The bane of government formation in this era of coalition politics has been the Prime Minister’s loss of prerogative to set up a council of ministers of his choice. But Manmohan Singh has altered after 20 long years — since V P Singh’s short-lived 1989 regime — the lead party’s terms of engagement with alliance partners to emerge as the “PM powerful.”
In exercising the prerogative that makes the PM the first among equals in the Union Cabinet, Singh hasn’t ventured to deny UPA partners their legitimate due. He has only set the ground rules by letting the likes of M. Karunanidhi know that they cannot unabashedly promote nominees with a smeared past or claim more than their legitimate share of power.
Once bitten, twice shy. That’s what Singh has been in resisting the DMK’s A. Raja and T.R. Baalu’s return to the same lucrative ministries of telecommunications and shipping and surface transport. Another conspicuous omission is Jharkhand Mukti Morcha’s Shibu Soren whose failure to surrender after a court warrant had caused the PM deep embarrassment in Parliament. The BJP’s Murli Manohar Joshi, while protesting the PM’s absence from Rajya Sabha, had called him a “fugitive” from the House like his minister Soren was from the Law.
So much so that the Opposition used the presence of “tainted ministers” in his government to deny the PM the privilege of introducing his ministerial colleagues to Parliament in 2004. That wasn’t, in fact, the end of it; the issue dogged Singh and his coalition all through its five-year tenure. Among the ministers forced to quit midway through were Soren, K. Natwar Singh, Jagdish Tytler and the RJD’s Jaiprakash Narayan Yadav.
“The PM has done very well in not succumbing to the DMK’s blackmail. It will enhance his image and that of his party,” said former law minister Shanti Bhushan, who is a founding member of the Committee on Judicial Accountability.
But can the Congress dictate an ally’s list of nominees for ministerial berths?
Not really, admitted a senior Cabinet minister. “But portfolio allocation is part of the PM’s prerogative,” he explained amid hints that the DMK was offered three Cabinet and three minister of state (MoS) slots. The package included telecommunications, held by Raja, but not shipping and transport, under Baalu’s charge in the previous regime. The deal broke when the DMK refused to scale down its demand for five Cabinet and four MoS slots.
UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi backed fully the PM’s refusal to submit to the southern ally’s unreasonable demands. “Between themselves, they’re enforcing the mandate for clean and efficient governance,” remarked former governor Bhishma Narain Singh.
Principles apart, much of what’s happening falls in the ambit of realpolitik. The Congress’s negotiating strength is based on its increased numbers — from 145 to 205 Lok Sabha MPs. It is also emboldened by the UPA partners’ dependence on its support on their home turfs: Trinamool’s in West Bengal, the NC’s in J&K and the recalcitrant DMK’s in Tamil Nadu.
In politics it’s the way it is in real life: jo jeeta wohi sikander. There is no other way Singh could have retired or waitlisted Congress heavyweights Arjun Singh and H R Bhardwaj.