Uncharacteristic aggression. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
A FEW minutes after the announcement in the Lok Sabha on the evening of July 22 that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had won the vote of confidence, a few journalists caught up with External Affairs Minister Pranab Kumar Mukherjee in the corridors of the Parliament House. He said: “It is a legal, constitutional and political victory for the government. The vote of confidence has not only cleared the way for the government to go forward with the India-U.S. nuclear deal in a rightful manner but has also accorded political sanction to the agreement since a majority of legislators of the Indian Parliament have put their stamp of approval on it.”
When some journalists pointed out that the win seemed to suffer from a lack of moral authority on account of the unseemly cash-for-vote allegations, Mukherjee responded that an inquiry would be conducted into the allegations and promised appropriate action if anything amiss was found.
Obviously, the veteran politician was not as audacious as his new ally, Samajwadi Party (S.P.) general secretary Amar Singh, who addressed the moral authority question with characteristic nonchalance. He said there was no need to invoke a morality parameter in this matter as sections of the opposition also tried to induce ruling party members to go over to their side and defeat the government.
There is little doubt that the spate of issues relating to the trust vote – how it was won, the methods adopted to make parties and Members of Parliament fall in line, the legal, constitutional, political and moral validity of the entire process – would be debated in the public sphere for long.
Whatever the qualitative dimensions of this debate, it will not alter the fundamental facts of the trust vote, which the UPA won with 275 votes against the Opposition’s 256 in a House of 542 members (including the Speaker). There were 10 abstentions too.
But beyond these irrefutable statistics, the claims about the political and moral authority of the win have not found many takers. Interestingly, even a section of leaders and workers of the Congress, cutting across the different segments of the party hierarchy, agrees that the ruling dispensation has not made any real political gain out of the win.
The trust vote witnessed as many as 28 members defying the whip of their parties and siding with the opposite camp. Of them, 21 belonged to the Opposition parties and seven to the government side. Of the 21 Opposition members, 13 voted for the government and eight abstained or remained absent from the House. Of the 21, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) accounted for 13 members, including eight from the BJP, and the non-NDA opposition parties for the rest.
Of the seven from the ruling side who voted with the Opposition, six belonged to the S.P. and all of them had long-standing differences with the S.P. leadership. For the record, they claimed that their party had opposed the nuclear deal until the first week of June and that the shift in policy was not acceptable to them. Kuldeep Bishnoi, the Congress member who voted against the UPA, has had a running battle with the party leadership for long.
Leaders of the BJP, including the party’s prime ministerial candidate Lal Krishna Advani, indicated that the primary motivation for the crossing over was money. They added that they had deputed the three members – Ashok Argal, Faggan Singh Kulaste and Mohan Bhagora – who displayed wads of money in the Lok Sabha to expose the money-peddling politics.
The BJP leadership’s contention on the motivation for the crossing over stands to reason because none of those members has a significant political support base in his respective State. This is true of other members in the NDA as well as in the non-NDA parties. The crossing over of these members to the UPA does not make any value addition to the Congress or the UPA in concrete terms.
The dimensions of this deficiency becomes all the more striking in the context of the politics in the days immediately following the Left parties’ withdrawal of support to the UPA government. The Left formally withdrew support on July 9 and the Mulayam Singh Yadav-led S.P. formally announced its support to the UPA the same day. This was not a dramatic or unexpected development because the S.P. had been negotiating with sections of the Congress leadership and the two parties had worked out a broad agreement on a political deal nearly a month earlier. The Congress leadership’s calculation at that time was that with the S.P. on board they would be able to convince Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), H.D. Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular) and the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS), a former member of the UPA in the present Lok Sabha, without much problem. In fact, several Congress leaders even claimed that these parties were natural allies of the Congress.
Calculation gone wrong
The main political players. (From left) Mulayam Singh Yadav of the S.P., Prakash Karat of the CPI(M), Mayawati of the BSP and L.K. Advani of the BJP.
When the process of wooing these parties began, the inducement for Ajit Singh came in the form of naming the Lucknow airport after his father, former Prime Minister Choudhary Charan Singh. The JD(S) had already started cooperating with the Congress in Karnataka after the drubbing that both parties received at the hands of the BJP in the Assembly elections held in May. The two parties had joined hands in a Rajya Sabha election last month. The negotiations with the JD(S) and the TRS apparently involved the entry of these parties into the Union Cabinet. In spite of all this, the three parties refused to come to the aid of the Congress.
The parties backtracked on the basis of discussions they had with Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati, who heads the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). She made the offer of a political alignment to the three parties, with the principal aim of fighting the next elections together. It was an offer that was hard to resist, given the significant Dalit base that the BSP has across Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan.
The parties then decided to stay away from the Congress and be part of a third formation, which was to include the Left parties, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and a few other regional parties such as the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD).
As this development shows, the ruling Congress was not able to win over a new political ally in the run-up to the trust vote, while parties that were not in government at the Centre were able to come together as part of a combination that would fight elections and take up people’s issues together.
A day after the trust vote, the parties in the new grouping met in New Delhi and announced the launch of a mass campaign against the UPA government highlighting issues such as price rise and inflation, the anti-national nature of the India-U.S. nuclear deal and the negative fallout of the neoliberal economic policies.
According to Parliamentary Affairs Minister Vayalar Ravi, the UPA leadership was indeed rattled by the failure to rope in parties such as the RLD, the JD(S) and the TRS, but it breathed a sigh of relief when the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), with its five members, took a firm position supporting the Manmohan Singh government.
By all indications, the operation to bring around the JMM involved some outrageous bargaining, which was qualitatively not much different from the exercises to win over Opposition MPs with individual allurements. The JMM is officially a constituent of the UPA in Jharkhand, but in the run-up to the trust vote its leadership negotiated simultaneously with the NDA and the UPA.
Both sides made big offers to JMM supremo Shibu Soren. While the NDA was ready to make him the Chief Minister of Jharkhand by engineering the collapse of the Madhu Koda-led government, the UPA had to give a firm commitment that it would induct Soren into the Union Cabinet at the earliest.
Soren was Coal Minister in the UPA government but was compelled to resign in November 2006 following his conviction in a murder case. The Jharkhand leader was acquitted in August 2007 but the UPA leadership apparently would not take him back into the Ministry on moral grounds. The Congress and UPA leadership had to abdicate that high moral position in order to rustle up the JMM votes for the July 22 trial of strength.
PTI/COURTESY LOK SABHA TV
BJP members show wads of money in the Lok Sabha on July 22 during the special session called to test the majority of the Manmohan Singh government. They alleged that the money was the first instalment of a bribe given to three members to get them to abstain during the confidence vote.
Another political calculation that went awry in the run-up to the trust vote was the one that visualised the isolation of the Left parties following their withdrawal of support to the government. Large sections of the Congress and its partners in the UPA and a number of political pundits and media analysts had held this view. The premise once again was that the RLD, the TRS and the JD(S) were natural allies of the Congress. This supposition took a beating when the Left regrouped successfully in the company of parties that included the BSP, the TDP, the RLD, the TRS and the JD(S).
However, the stand-off that the Communist Party of India (Marxist) had with Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee over his resignation became a cause for embarrassment for the Left in general and the CPI(M) in particular. Somnath Chatterjee, defying directions of the CPI(M) leadership, held on to the Speaker’s post and even presided over the vote of confidence discussions. At the end of it all, the CPI(M) ended up expelling Chatterjee from the party while the Speaker continued in his constitutional position.
Already, there are suggestions within the Left that its association with the BSP could prove to be a much more cohesive alliance ideologically and politically than the one it had with the S.P. earlier. This assumption has its roots in the fact that the BSP’s core base is drawn from some of the most oppressed communities of the country. “This should help us develop a better working relationship with the BSP since the Left’s commitment to empowering the oppressed sections is unquestionable, although we have not been able to carry forward this struggle successfully in many North Indian States,” said a senior Left leader to Frontline.
While this optimism can be justified theoretically, it remains to be seen how the equation develops when the corruption cases against Mayawati come up for consideration in the courts and in public debates.
Beyond this, the Left leadership is certain that its anti-UPA campaign along with other parties will help it consolidate its position in Kerala and West Bengal, where the Left is in power. The Left leadership is sure that it can capitalise on the widespread anti-U.S. sentiment in Kerala. It also believes that its stand on the nuclear deal will help it win back at least a section of Muslims, who have moved away from the Left parties following the Nandigram episode in West Bengal.
Even as the new non-BJP, non-Congress grouping is going ahead with its agitation plans, the UPA is also getting set to unleash new initiatives. In his reply to the debate on the trust motion, which he was not allowed to complete, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that over the past four years the Left parties had treated him as a slave and that he was not able to move forward on many of the policies and programmes. The reference must have been to reforms in sectors such as insurance and retail trade, which the Left opposed vehemently.
Manmohan Singh’s performance in Parliament was followed up by the leaders of industry, including organisations such as the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), who demanded a further thrust to the economic reform process.
Such assertive demands had new qualitative dimensions in the background of allegations that many corporates bankrolled the moves to win over Opposition MPs. Indications from the Congress were that the government would go all out on the reform path in the near future.
The official residence of Chander Bhan Singh, BJP member from Madhya Pradesh who abstained during the confidence vote in Parliament, comes under attack from angry party supporters on July 24.
This, sources in the Congress said, would divide Mayawati and Mishra and lead to the collapse of the government. Once that happened, an alternative would be rustled up by splitting the BSP’s MLAs. The responsibility for conceiving and implementing this project, the sources said, was with select leaders in the party and officers in the government who were once castigated as the “policemen” group by the S.P. leadership. That was between 2003 and 2007 when the S.P. government was sought to be destabilised by the Congress. Ironically, some S.P. leaders may also find a place in the group now.
In Karnataka, where the BJP enjoys a thin majority, “operation topple” is expected to be easier. H.T. Sangliana, the Lok Sabha member from Bangalore North who defected during the trust vote, could be a key player in this. Sangliana, a former Police Commissioner of Bangalore, is immensely popular among the MLAs in and around Bangalore and could well attract a handful of them to his side.
Informed sources said the Congress expected these operations to be completed before September so as to give the party leadership the political cushion to face the next Lok Sabha elections. It seems that the upbeat mood of the confidence vote is developing into political audaciousness.