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Manmohan shows spine, wins key battle with Left

The UPA government has won a crucial victory and will now move forward confidently on its own reform agenda.

india Updated: Feb 06, 2006 19:54 IST
Simon Denyer (Reuters)
Simon Denyer (Reuters)

The UPA government has won a crucial victory against its communist "allies" over airport modernisation and will now move forward more confidently on its own reform agenda, analysts said on Monday.

Manmohan Singh forced through a plan to modernise the country's two leading airports using private capital last week and didn't back down despite a four-day strike by airport workers supported by left-wing parties.

"This is a major turning point," said political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan. "The Left is on the backfoot. Congress has stared it down and made it blink."

The communists hold the balance of power in Parliament, ostensibly supporting the government "from outside" the ruling coalition, but often using threats to block or water down reforms to liberalise the country's economy.

But the Left is also reluctant to bring down the government and play into the hands of the Opposition.

"Finally he (Singh) has chosen to call their bluff," said economist and fund manager Surjit Bhalla. "Now it's a different ball game."

On Saturday, the government also ran roughshod over communist objections, by voting at the International Atomic Energy Authority to back a resolution to report long-time ally Iran to the UN Security Council over its nuclear programme.

Since he was elected in 2004 at the head of a fragile coalition, Singh has often seemed like a leader with his hands tied, his reformist instincts constantly thwarted by left-wingers both within his own party and in parliament.

Not all plain sailing

The Indian newspapers, solidly behind the government in its efforts to modernise the country's overcrowded airports, applauded Singh for showing the spine to stand up for himself.

"The significant thing about the events ... is that they mark a break with precedent," the Hindustan Times said in an editorial.

"And they provide evidence that Manmohan Singh has finally come to terms with the realisation that it is not right to be in office if you don't do the right thing."

But it is unlikely to be all plain sailing for the soft-spoken economist who leads the world's largest democracy.

The Left has called for a parliamentary debate on the Iran vote, and is already gearing up for another battle over the budget later this month.

"We feel the government is going ahead with its own policies nonchalantly and it feels we can't do anything," MK Pandhe, a senior member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) told a news agency. "We will correct this impression."

"We will make them realise that without our support many bills cannot be passed, including financial bills."

Nor can Singh ignore the left-wing within his own party, often championed by Sonia Gandhi and seen as the main driving force behind a rural massive job creation plan which was launched last week.

Rangarajan says the government will now start to "push the envelope" more confidently over privatisation, particularly in areas like ports or dockyards.

But major reforms -- of labour and pension laws, or to liberalise the insurance and power sectors -- have remained on the drawing board for nearly two years of coalition rule. That is where they are likely to stay.

First Published: Feb 06, 2006 19:54 IST