At one level, coalition politics is a no-holds-barred game of power. At another, it’s serious business with its own zealously guarded ground rules the Samajwadi Party seems to be disregarding even before committing support to the UPA regime.
The SP’s prescription for fighting inflation — besides keeping communal forces at bay and helping the government clinch the nuclear deal — has all the imprints of corporate one-upmanship. Its leadership’s demand for higher spectrum usage charges and imposition of windfall taxes on oil companies come amid none-too-veiled attacks on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s senior Cabinet colleagues from the Congress stock.
In these early stages of a budding entente with Mulayam Singh Yadav and his alter ego, Amar Singh, the Congress has rightly kept its counsel on issues flagged by its potential ally. But it’s hard to miss the writing on the wall. The SP’s support isn’t coming for free.
If push comes to shove, will the PM junk ministerial colleagues at the SP’s bidding? Past coalition regimes saw ministers of constituent parties being changed against the PM’s wishes at the behest of their party chiefs. Take, for instance, the case of a bright minister like Suresh Prabhu. He fell to Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray’s ire despite strong support from Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Such instances apart, no Prime Minister since the dawn of the coalition era has allowed a third party to trifle around with his prerogative of setting up his council of ministers. Even Inder Gujral chose to resign rather than submit to the Congress’s diktat to drop DMK ministers after the Jain Commission — that probed the conspiracy aspect of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination — indicted the Tamil-Nadu based party for its tacit support of the LTTE. That was in November 1997.
Earlier, in 1996, the Congress itself rejected without a second thought the United Front’s demand for the party’s outside support minus the Babri-tainted P.V. Narasimha Rao. The UF promptly fell in line on being told they had no business dabbling in the internal affairs, leave alone determining the leadership of a supporting party.
No different from the Congress’s response was the political logic that made the CPM turn down the second time — after a joint request by the Front’s partners — the offer of the PM’s office to Jyoti Basu.
The “historical blunder” saw H.D. Deve Gowda become the UF’s PM. His tenure was cut short by a suspicious, ill-advised Congress president Sitaram Kesri. What followed was Gujral’s seven-month tenure, beginning April 1997, the only high point of which was his refusal to dump a coalition partner at another party’s instance.
In fact, Mulayam’s own response was no different to the Congress’s late-2007 efforts to mend fences with the SP by sidelining Amar Singh. The SP chief turned down his trusted lieutenant’s offer to step down as general secretary, gagged his critics and restored his primacy in the party.
There are lessons here for both the Congress and the SP. Coalitions politics is a two-way street where every commuter must have his right of way.