There's a line in that masterful political guidebook, The Bhagvad Gita, where Krishna tells a vacillating Arjun before the war of Kurukshetra, "A man shouldn't abandon his work, even if he can't achieve it in full perfection; for in all work there may be imperfection, even as in all fire there is smoke." Plenty of 'smoke' was billowing from Parliament on Tuesday as the cut motions moved by the Opposition against the UPA's economic policies were defeated. In a way, everyone carried out their actions knowing well that achieving political perfection, from the perspective of each political party, would be impossible and was never the goal. It was a tale of consistent inconsistencies from Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party (SP) and Lalu Prasad's Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) as the two 'Third Fronters' decided that public displays of solidarity with the Left against rising petroleum and fertiliser prices would serve them well even as they abstained from Tuesday's voting.
Both the SP and the RJD know that they don't have the political clout to take on the government. The bipolar behaviour helps Mulayam Singh at a juncture when he's hoping to visibly correct impressions that his party — because of its dealings with former BJP Chief Minister Kalyan Singh — behaved opportunistically (and paid the price) during last year's Lok Sabha elections and may still be chummy with 'communal forces'. Lalu Prasad, with Bihar going to the polls later this year, has even more existential reasons not to be seen voting with the BJP on any issue. As was the case when the SP 'bailed out' the UPA during the ruckus over the India-US nuclear deal, both regional parties now expect a quid pro quo — less in terms of Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiries but more in terms of ensuring that the likes of the Women's Reservation Bill are kept in their traditional place: the deep freezer. But if the credit for breaking up the BJP-Left's 'cut motion party' can go to anyone, it is the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Mayawati has her own reasons for creating a greater distance between the BSP and the BJP, even as she rattles sabres against the Congress in Lucknow while providing necessary leg-ups to the Centre in Delhi. The CBI-related tit-for-tat, in this context, is as hard to swallow as, well, any form of incremental 'you help me and I'll help you' realpolitik. It's not pretty, but it's there.
As in lunches, there is nothing called free support. The UPA's larger goal of carrying through its policies will mean dealing with contradictions, posturings, schizophrenic political behaviour and not lapsing into inaction just because there is the 'smoke of imperfections' to deal with. Simply put, the government will have to master playing issue-by-issue, incremental politics of its own. In the coming days, we will get to know how adept it is at taking action — even if it means conducting calculated flip-flops of its own — without getting blinded by the smoke.