Fourteen years ago, as a 13-day A.B. Vajpayee government fell, the BJP’s man for all seasons, the late Pramod Mahajan, offered an interesting explanation for what had gone wrong. Speaking to a group of journalists, he said, “We were all so excited at having become the single largest group in Parliament and being invited to form the government that we forgot you need 272 MPs to win a confidence vote!”
Two hundred and seventy-two: that magical number that even Sonia Gandhi tripped over in 1999. Politics, as practised in a television studio may be about its vocabulary, in the heat and dust of a campaign about its chemistry, but in the forbidding corridors of Parliament it is about plain arithmetic. The 2009 general elections ensured that the maths was firmly in favour of the Congress-led UPA. The UPA won 265 seats, seven short of an outright majority, but still more than a 100 seats better than the NDA with 151 seats. The Left was virtually wiped out with 23 seats. The gap was simply too wide to allow a non-UPA combination to stage a democratic coup.
Which is why it’s fanciful for some Opposition leaders to have actually believed that they could bring down the Manmohan Singh government through a cut motion in Parliament. That the Left and the Right were excited enough to shed ideological inhibitions and vote together against the government is no surprise. The Left’s been itching to teach Singh a lesson since it was isolated on the Indo-US Nuclear Bill. The BJP still hasn’t entirely got over its defeats in two successive Lok Sabha elections that it believes it should have won.
But what the Left and the Right seem to have forgotten is that the notion of a ‘combined’ Opposition is a misnomer in contemporary politics. In 1977, the excesses of the Emergency brought the entire non-Congress Opposition together against Indira Gandhi. In 1989, the Left and Right famously came together to support the Janata Dal government of V.P. Singh. Two decades later, any hope of repeating a 1989-like experiment is betrayed by the reality of a political climate where convenience, not conviction, matters. Anti-Congressism and anti-BJPism — both powerful glues for previous experiments in oppositional politics — have now been replaced by naked self-interest and, in some cases, sheer survival instinct.
A Mayawati may challenge a Rahul Gandhi on home turf in Uttar Pradesh. But she needs the Centre to bail her out in the Supreme Court. A Shibu Soren, a proven political bigamist, may have entered into a shotgun marriage with the BJP in Jharkhand. But his romance with the UPA in New Delhi will endure till such time as the fear exists of another jail sentence. And then, there’re Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh Yadav, both of whom also face the prospect of a judicial knock on the door. Both are conscious of the Congress’s attempts to invade their territory, but also cannot afford to be seen publicly siding with the BJP.
This disparate group of non-NDA, non-UPA, non-Left ‘others’ is a substantial 103 MPs in the 15th Lok Sabha. It includes parties like the Biju Janata Dal, which has seemingly committed itself to principled ‘equidistance’ but mainly comprises political outfits whose leaders are caught in the ‘DA trap’: not dearness allowance, but disproportionate assets. Their legal tangles make such political leaders acutely vulnerable to pressures from the State machinery, and the CBI — now dismissively referred to as the Congress Bureau of Investigation — in particular.
But while the UPA is clearly in the comfort zone, there is the danger of comfort turning to complacency. In 1984, Rajiv Gandhi’s 400-plus majority withered away as the Opposition was treated with disdain. Singh is not Rajiv: if he does have an ego, he hides it well under his turban. And yet, there’s a growing sense that in UPA-2 the Congress, as the dominant party, appears to be moving away from a coalition dharma towards a single-party rule mindset, sanguine in the belief that its position is unchallenged till 2014. The result is a gathering disquiet among some of its allies whose support is critical to the government’s well-being.
The Nationalist Congress Party, for example, appears convinced that the Indian Premier League (IPL) ‘leaks’ have been engineered from within the government to embarrass its leadership. The Trinamool, numerically the largest ally, is worried that ahead of next year’s West Bengal elections, the Congress may trip it up at the last moment. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, too, sees next year’s assembly elections as a test case: a surprise defeat could lead to another political realignment. Not to forget Lalu, once a staunch ally, now feeling sidelined after being kept out of the Cabinet. There is also a seething anger across parties at the way in which the Women’s Reservation Bill was sought to be rammed through.
Yes, the numbers are still firmly with the UPA government, and there seems no immediate danger to the stability of the ruling coalition. But in politics appearances can be terribly deceptive, and the calm waters may only be masking a certain inner turbulence. To take the IPL analogy: just a month ago, it appeared that Lalit Modi and his team were here to stay forever. It took one tweet to bring down the entire edifice. Politics is far more slippery than cricket. This April has been open season in cricket. Next year, it could well be the case in politics.
Post-script: When asked of his father Shibu Soren’s decision to vote with the UPA in Parliament, his son Hemant described it as ‘human error’. He’s not wrong. It’s the frailties of human nature that make politics so unpredictable and exciting.