The present nuke deal-induced political crisis appears to be much like an evenly poised cricket Test match whose outcome becomes known only in the last stages.
In this suspense-filled deal, there are many lingering doubts in my mind. Will the nuclear deal go through unhindered? Will Manmohan Singh clear the floor test in the Lok Sabha when a no-confidence vote is moved by the main opposition party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)?
Will the United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) leadership be able to accommodate the demands of a demanding ally like the Samajwadi Party (SP) in terms of ministerial berths, sacking of ministers holding key portfolios, and policy changes that suit the interests of friendly business houses?
There are no clear answers to many of these questions.
Evidently, the government has entered a choppy phase and survival from now onwards, in the aftermath of an imminent withdrawal of support by the Left parties, will be fraught with grave political costs.
Nuke deal: a reference point?
The nuclear deal has become a reference point for realignment of political forces into pro- and anti-nuke deal camps. The realignment is somewhat strange as the deal has brought bitter ideological rivals such as the Left Front and the BJP on the same side of the policy divide.
The SP, fearing a backlash from its Muslim vote bank for backing the deal, is desperately trying to project its support to the Congress as a fight against “communal forces”, a reference to the BJP. The SP’s claims sound hollow as the party has been a clandestine ally of the BJP for the past decade.
For the Congress leadership, which has enjoyed the Left Front’s support without a share for the Communists in the power structure, the SP’s conditions for support are a grim sign of things to come. It is demanding plum portfolios such as finance, petroleum, telecom and power and to force the UPA’s acquiescence, that party leaders have mounted a scathing attack on the finance and petroleum ministers.
No sooner had it extended support, than the SP began demanding crucial policy changes in the petroleum and telecom sectors to benefit its friends and hurt their business rivals. In particular, the SP has demanded imposition of windfall profit tax on domestic oil firms, a ban on export of petroleum products and an increase in spectrum usage charges of GSM mobile operators.
With such business interests at stake, can the Congress-SP alliance be expected to be a smooth one? Will UPA head and Congress president Sonia Gandhi allow the government to be dictated by private interests of supporting parties and their business associates? The SP-Congress friction on account of business rivalries could prove to be a major source of instability for the government.
The nuclear deal is also causing ripples in the United National Progressive Alliance (UNPA) and its premature death is only a matter of time. The UNPA is a conglomerate of regional parties which have nothing in common except their stated and unstated revulsion of the Congress. The UNPA is on the verge of collapse as the SP has moved closer to the Congress and partners such as the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) are exploring electoral alliance with the BJP.
The only party that is likely to stay away from the Congress and the BJP is the Telugu Desam Party (TDP). Its leader Chandrababu Naidu could have played a dominant role in national politics, but the party is preoccupied with local problems as many prominent leaders have deserted it in Andhra Pradesh. The UNPA meeting last week proved to be a stormy affair. Accused of selling out to the Congress, SP leader Amar Singh hit out at the TDP, AGP and Indian National Lok Dal, charging them with teaming up with the BJP in the past when it suited them. The disgust in the UNPA camp was so intense that one of the interlocutors commented that the alliance must now dump the SP and take Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) on board.
UP mega alliance in works
Another reason for the Congress-SP proximity is their growing realization that the BSP will decimate them in Uttar Pradesh polls if they don’t team up. They are also trying to rope in Ajit Singh-led Rashtriya Lok Dal, which has a strong influence among the numerically strong Jat community in western Uttar Pradesh, for a grand alliance to defeat the BSP. But Ajit Singh, who has been betrayed by both the Congress and the SP, is exploring a tie-up with the BJP-led National Democractic Alliance.
The national politics is in a flux. How events will unfold in the coming week will have major implications for national politics. For the UPA, which is keen on averting early polls, the costs of surviving in office with all attendant compromises may prove expensive.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of Development & Research Services, a research and consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org