What happens to the Indian government in the near term will now be dictated by three calculations: how Manmohan Singh eventually responds to the Left’s ‘fall in line or face consequences’ ultimatum, how the UPA allies will respond to the Congress’ game plan of laying the foundation for moving towards a mid-term poll, and how the party leadership perceives the odds of surviving a snap poll.
The differences between the Congress and the Left parties appear generally irreconcilable. A solution is only possible if one side accepts ‘losing face’ and climbs down from its stated position.
So, where does the UPA government go from here?
The Singh government seems to have bought itself time by agreeing to a panel to review the concerns over the nuclear deal. Survival in office is the solution—however temporary—that most UPA allies are in favour of as most of them are not prepared for a mid-term poll.
But, this situation is already a big loss of face for the Prime Minister who has staked his prestige on the nuclear deal. Given his strong conviction that the deal is in India’s interest, the Prime Minister is perhaps only being politically expedient in order to avoid an imminent crisis.
Personally, for UPA partners and even many Congress leaders, saving the government is a larger concern than salvaging the Prime Minister’s prestige. Thus, if the Prime Minister ultimately refuses to yield, the UPA could go in for a new prime minister who would have less at stake than Singh does over this deal. But, this is a scenario that doesn’t suit Congress president Sonia Gandhi as the Left parties will insist that the chosen candidate will have to be acceptable to them. Would Gandhi herself then become a candidate? This may be a remote possibility, but cannot be ruled out especially with an amenable President in Rashtrapati Bhavan.
The Left may now stop pushing the nuclear issue further and allow time to let the government sort out problems through negotiations and may eventually pull out at a convenient time leading to mid-term polls in 2008, as the inner contradictions between the UPA and the Left parties mandate parting of ways before elections.
Although UPA allies will have a big say in what the Congress decides to do, if Sonia is convinced there can be no better opportunity to push into polls than the present one presented by the communists, she could pull the trigger.
The Congress leadership believes that it would better its performance if snap polls are held to the Lok Sabha now. The Congress party is sensing a victory in the BJP’s stronghold state of Gujarat, where assembly polls are scheduled later this year although, in my assessment, this optimism is quite misplaced. Similarly, the party believes that it would defeat the BJP in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. Moreover, the economy is in a very good shape and the party will take credit for having brought inflation down from the peak level of 6.73% in February to around 4%.
Although calling elections on the nuclear deal issue alone is not convenient for the Congress, because it may be perceived as ‘pro-American’ by many Muslims who matter in swing constituencies, the party is planning to showcase its pro-minority credentials by pushing the Srikrishna Commission report on 1993 Mumbai communal clashes.
It seems that the reason why the Left parties were also willing to precipitate the crisis is also partly based on the Muslim card. The Left parties and their potential regional allies—such as the TDP, SP and AGP—depend hugely on the Muslim vote for their success. The Left’s revised assessment seemingly stems from their thinking that in a mid-term poll, they can polarise the Muslim vote in their favour given the community’s antipathy towards the US.
The Singh government may survive for now but it is being reduced to a lame duck government, dependent ever more so on the Left’s crucial support for every economic policy initiative and living in the continuous fear of a Left pullout on a more populist issue in the future. Much like the stock market, the political scene has entered an extremely volatile zone and even if the government hangs in there for now and not crash, the mood will remain bearish.
(G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of Development & Research Services, a research and consultant firm in New Delhi. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com )