Where will Sharad Pawar go?” It was a counterblast to suggestions from the media that the Congress’s seemingly strained ties with Pawar’s NCP are hurtling towards a breaking point. And it came from a senior member of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.
He couldn’t have put the situation in lesser words. The UPA is on a strong footing because there is no visible and credible alternative to it. Not yet. The TINA (there is no alternative) factor will keep coalition partners rooted to their seats of power until they have better options. Politicians, like brigands, don’t shoot without a pre-arranged scoot. More so when they build coalitions primarily to share, retain or wrest power. Apply the test to Pawar, Mamata Banerjee and Karunanidhi and you would get your answers.
The NCP shares power with the Congress in Delhi and Mumbai. The Trinamool and DMK have to wrest and retain power with its help in Kolkata and Chennai. The UPA wouldn’t unravel so long as the dependence is mutual and fruitful.
The Congress-led coalition’s wafer-thin majority in the House is at best a worry for its floor managers. What counts is the ground situation, which the protagonists know isn’t ripe for fresh polls or for political realignments that would call for a leadership change from within the 15th Lok Sabha.
With little help from friends
The Bharatiya Janata Party would have one believe that the UPA misused the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to make its disenchanted ‘outside supporters’ — Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party, Samajwadi Party's Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal who are under probe for graft charges — break ranks with the Opposition and bail out the government in the Budget session. It’s possible. But what really sobered them up was the prospect of early elections.
Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee drove home the point to reject insinuations of BSP’s support for the Budget coming in as a consideration. Even the SP and RJD members walked out to save UPA from the life threatening cut motions brought by the Opposition.
“It’s one thing to pose a threat but another to translate that into reality and face the consequences,” said Mukherjee. The consequence would have been another general election — something the parties are unwilling to face just yet.
That apart, the political implications of siding with the BJP against the “secular” UPA were never lost on Mayawati, Mulayam and Lalu. The Yadav duo joined up briefly with the saffron party and the Left on the price-rise issue, in the hope of a give-and-take that never materialised on the women’s quota Bill.
Lalu admitted it in as many words: “I get nothing from voting for the cut motions? The government wouldn’t fall and I’d be bracketed with the communal BJP.” What drove him and Mulayam out of the House was the cost-benefit analysis of merely exposing the government’s dwindled numerical strength. The Yadav chieftains were all along aware of the UPA’s simple majority after discounting their votes.
The symbolism of a numerically weakened UPA had little value for either of the two — especially Lalu, who needs to keep his distance from the BJP to present himself as a better choice for Bihar’s Muslims than the saffron-stained Nitish Kumar. He cannot afford to lose that space to a resurgent Congress in a triangular fight in the Assembly polls due later this year.
What’s true for Bihar is applicable to UP. The parties slugging it out for Muslim support there are the BSP, SP and the Congress. In the no-holds-barred game it will be difficult for Mulayam and Lalu to live down even the pretence of opposing the “secular” UPA in tandem with the BJP.
Out of power and pitted against governments in their home states, the Yadav leaders are pragmatic enough not to open another battlefront at the Centre. The Congress, for its part, has kept them engaged by going slow on the women’s quota Bill that could be the UPA 2’s parallel to the Indo-US nuclear deal, on which the Left withdrew support from UPA 1.
State polls will tell
The BJP’s stakes in the six assembly polls due in 2010-11 are restricted to Bihar and, to some extent, Assam. For the Left, however, it’s a do or die. Its profile at the national level hinges on its performance in Kerala and West Bengal, where it will be hard put to retain power. The equations within the UPA will be determined by the outcome in all states — notably, the alliances the Congress has with the Trinamool in Bengal and the DMK in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. Hung Assemblies in these states and Bihar will enhance the Congress’s bargaining power, more so if it wrests Kerala and, by some luck, retains Assam for a third term.
At some stage, the Congress’s long-term agenda of recouping base in UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Orissa is bound to bring it into conflict with regional groupings that count so much in setting up and running mixed regimes.
But what was possible against Rajiv Gandhi in 1988 — when the Left teamed up with the BJP to prop up VP Singh — wouldn’t be easily achievable against Rahul and Sonia Gandhi. The BJP today is floundering, the Left gasping for breath. The Third Front they jointly parented cannot be regrouped as a credible entity.
Beyond that, only a clairvoyant can tell.