Within a week of the euphoric electoral victory for the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), greeted by pundits as a triumph for national parties and a vote against regionalism, the reality of coalition politics has surfaced.
In a grim reality check that regionalism is still very much a part of the political lexicon, differences between the Congress and its key ally from south India, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), first led to a staggering of government formation and then to a delay in the announcement of portfolios. In fact, 13 of the 19 ministers who were sworn in on Friday are yet to be allotted their portfolios.
This is in contrast to the mood last Monday when the Congress, buoyed by its tally of 206 seats—the most it has won in 18 years—signalled that it was not going to be subjected to coalition blackmail. Understandable, since the UPA, within 48 hours of the elections, after taking into account the unsolicited outside support of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party, had extended its strength in the Lok Sabha to 322, 50 more than the 272 required for a majority.
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It even let it be known—not officially though (reported by Mint on 20 May)—that a new formula would be in place wherein only one cabinet berth would be allotted for every seven members of Parliament (MPs). It was indicated that the Congress was keen to bifurcate ministries such as chemicals and fertilizers, and commerce and industry, and avoid creating omnibus portfolios under a minister by clubbing ministries; and that aspirants, even those belonging to allies, with questionable or controversial track records will not be considered for ministerial posts.
Riding on these claims, a new-look UPA government under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was to take charge on Friday.
However, the DMK, subject to its own internal pressures stemming from sibling rivalries in the family of its chief M. Karunanidhi, was not willing to sign on with the new stated objectives of the Congress. This despite the creditable electoral performance of the Congress and the fact that the DMK government in Tamil Nadu is propped up by the outside support of the Congress.
Faced with their first political test within 48 hours of the win, Singh and the Congress party refused to blink. But the DMK also played hardball: it pulled out of the negotiations, offered to support the government from outside with the flourish of a martyr; its leadership skipped the oath-taking ceremony in Rashtrapati Bhavan on Friday and headed back to Chennai.
The end result was the stalemate that forced Singh to stagger cabinet formation over two days. The portfolio announcement indicated that the move to avoid omnibus portfolios had been given a quiet burial with Sharad Pawar, chief of the Nationalist Congress Party, retaining his earlier charge of agriculture as well as food and consumer affairs. The rest of the cabinet, assuming that the differences are resolved, is expected to be sworn in this week, probably on Tuesday.
Both sides, however, despite the public posturing, continued negotiations. The DMK, on its part, avoided a total boycott of the swearing-in ceremony by ensuring the presence of former telecom minister A. Raja. Singh, on behalf of the Congress, toned down its rhetoric and clarified that it was not against accommodating either Raja or T.R. Baalu, the former highway minister, both of whom had attracted considerable controversy during their tenure in the previous UPA regime.
Smart moves from both sides, and more so from Singh, who has deftly avoided letting the Congress get boxed in—which no doubt would have won the party another round of wholesome praise from the urban intelligentsia—by its initial rhetoric, inspired largely by the euphoria of its electoral performance. Impressions are often more important than actions. Particularly in politics, where it is not what you are doing, but what you are seen to be doing that is significant.
At the same time, the announcement of some portfolios, particularly that of finance, has delinked them from the political impasse in the coalition and cleared the decks for budget preparation and renewed policy responses to the economic downturn.
It is clear that while the Congress indeed emerged from the 15th general election with a stronger-than-expected mandate, it is still not free of pulls and pressures from its coalition partners.
But in the collective interest of the country, it is time for all wise heads to come together and realize that this is not the time for politics, but for economics.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at email@example.com