Missing: ‘United’ from a progressive alliance

In May 2009, India voted for a United Progressive Alliance, not a divided one.

Shashank Chouhan

In May 2009, India voted for a United Progressive Alliance, not a divided one. But a year down the line, that is what we have at the Centre.

In what was a dream mandate, the Congress led UPA retained its numero uno position with a total of 262 seats. The Congress ratcheted up an unprecedented 206 seats which gave it a clear upper hand in a coalition government.

This was a mandate of stability, the pundits declared. With the hammer and sickle gone from over its head, the new government of India had a golden chance of governing a country of a billion people with determination and thus, success.

That was not to be.

One could call it over-confidence or a strategy for states devised after the fantastic Rahul Gandhi -led campaign in Uttar Pradesh that won 21 seats for the Congress after decades, but the decision to snub Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal gave a chance to the Opposition to create hurdles in almost every major piece of legislation that the UPA brought forth in this one year.

And legislation has clearly been at the heart of the PM-Sonia Gandhi agenda. But without a majority in the House of Elders and cracks amongst its own allies in the Lok Sabha, this desire to bring in visionary laws has had to be either relegated to cold storage or made to align with the demands of the various saviors of the government.

Worse- voices of dissent from within the Congress have not only shattered the image of a disciplined party with a unanimous approach, it has gone on to give ammo to the Opposition attack.

One can not say when the fissures began to appear- was it the price rise issue, the austerity drive, women’s bill or land acquisition proposal? May be the answer to that question is not that important. What’s important for now is that as far as its comfort zone goes, the UPA increasingly finds itself squeezed to square one- where survival was important and many of Manmohan Singh’s plans were buried under the red flag pole.

The situation is worse in UPA- II.

In its first spell of power, the UPA felt the heat in Lok Sabha 21 times (when the Speaker called for a division of votes on various issues) and 20 of them were mere formalities. Only eight months before its term got over did the alliance face real danger as the Left pulled support. The Indo-US nuclear bill was rescued by SP in an opaque deal.
Now, less than a year into the hot seat, the PM has had to tackle the same situation with more uncertainty. The Congress was a nervous wreck before the cut motions of Opposition were introduced and only last-minute compromises/maneuvering could save the day. The CBI favoured BSP’s Mayawati and apparently threatened to push the Yadav duo in legal mess who were stunned at Behenji’s move to support the UPA on price debate. That turned the tables and saw support to a public cause of price rise being ditched by politicos.

That it had a price was clear when, despite the public disagreement of senior ministers like P Chidambaram and Pranab Mukherjee, the UPA had to accede to the demand of the Yadavs to introduce an OBC component in the current census, with the PM saying he had to ‘take into account the views of all sections.’ Even the strategy that the Congress will undertake in Bihar elections is now under scrutiny what with Lalu & co demanding their pound of flesh for walking out during cut motion.

Ironically for the UPA, these were the same parties who were not invited to be a part of the government despite their declared support. As the UPA completes its sixth year in government, the BSP, SP and RJD leaders are set to be a party to the celebrations at 10, Janpath.

But perhaps the real story lies in who won’t attend that party. Nationalist Congress Party’s Sharad Pawar and Trinamool’s Mamata Banerjee may ignore the RSVPs.

Despite his statement that the UPA-II is a cohesive alliance, Sharad Pawar and his fiefdom- the Agriculture Ministry- have been at the centre of a bitter storm over sugar. While the Congress has sought to put the blame of rising price of food products, especially sugar, on Pawar’s shoulders, the wily grand old Maratha took refuge in the principle of collective responsibility and threw the ball towards the PMO. The IPL controversy and the enquiry initiated by the government into the alleged scams that could involve Pawar’s family didn’t help the cause of a weakening bond either.

That was of course an extension of the Congress-NCP turf war in Maharashtra.

While the two parties are still partners in that state, politics has taken toll in West Bengal where Trinamool Congress has refused any truck with the Congress in the upcoming municipal polls. This has been preceded by Mamata’s rhetoric on the Central strategy against Naxals being in support of her bête noire, the Left parties. Not just that, the meteoric didi refused to support the government on vital pieces of legislation including the Land Acquisition Bill, Women’s Reservation Bill and price rise issue. Apart from refusing to set her daily routine in Delhi, she reportedly shed tears when Paranab da refused to allocate her more trains this Budget- mostly for Bengal.

Pranab babu, the bhadralok that he is, has been, more or less, able to tackle the Mamata challenge but the DMK is a bone that is stuck in the PM’s throat- he can`t get rid of it for fear of losing 18 MPs and is forced to defend its minister in a press conference. While A Raja, the telecom doyen, is sporting controversies over his ministry since the last term of UPA, A Azhagiri speaks (in Tamil only, of course- his discomfort in communicating in any other language has become a challenge of sorts in his Fertiliser ministry as well as in the Lok Sabha where he is almost always absent) in different voices over his pet project, the nutrient-based subsidy bill. Both leaders have forced urgent meetings between their bosses on a regular basis to tackle the fire storms in their trail.

The situation is worse in Congress’ own house. While two first-timer ministers have proved to be loose-canons rather than the young leaders with new thoughts that they were expected to be, the voices of disagreement over various issues have grown louder.

Nothing demonstrates this divide more than the question on how to tackle the Naxal menace. While Chidambaram favours using all means to decimate the red rebels, his colleagues and boss think otherwise and he has had to fall in line, saying he believes in a collective wisdom. That this limited mandate that the Home Minister has been handed by an undecided Cabinet continues to take its toll on citizens and half-trained personnel seems to move none.

The PM got the India-US Nuclear Deal cleared by staking his own position in the last term but this time, no one could have imagined what happened when the final screws were being tightened in the deal- as the government was set to present the Nuclear Liability Bill in Lok Sabha it realized, to its horror, that it was short on its own MPs who had chosen to give the big day a pass. That was a floor mismanaged which forced the govt, perhaps for the first time in Parliament’s history, to withdraw a bill which had been listed in the day’s business of the House.

Be it travelling ‘cattle class’, deciding the actual figure of BPL families for the Food Security Bill, head-on collision between Sharad Pawar and Jairam Ramesh over Bt Brinjal or the issue of environmental clearances of the various infrastructure projects in limbo etc.- no body seems to agree with one another in this ‘team’.

While the PM has said that it is ‘healthy for ministers to express dissent but not in public’ even critical questions of foreign policy are openly debated and disagreed upon. Sharm-el-Sheikh and investment from China are probably the worst foreign policy errors in recent years and both pointed to much in-fighting.

Absence of firm action against its own flock has led to an embarrassing situation for the Congress led government- there are over 70 bills hanging fire in the Parliament and more draft bills that haven’t yet got their final shape what with Sonia Gandhi resuming command of the National Advisory Council and taking a fresh look at various bills like Food Security etc with inputs from the social sector.

Now what is the condition of a man in-charge of a coalition is known since the days of UPA-I. Manmohan Singh has not been able to convince Pawar to at least not say things like ‘I am not an astrologer’ when asked about inflation control. But what has kept the Congress high command from cracking whip on its own Brutus-es who regularly shoot from the hip is perplexing as well as frustrating.

The highlight of mandate 2009 was the exit of Left parties who always seemed to stick their toe in the door on vital issues. With some sweeping steps that it has taken in the fields of education, law, health, women’s representation etc, it was clear that the leeway achieved was being utilized well by the UPA. But increasingly, it seems, that the haath of the Congress has become a loose limb rather than a clinched fist united to strike a blow at its adversaries, including the biggest of them all- misgovernance.