Thanks to the outside support extended by the Left parties, for the last four years, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was run almost like a single-party Congress government. With the Left’s exit, the Congress party will now wake up to the harsher realities of running a true coalition government, assuming, that is, there is a government to run after the parliamentary showdown later this month.
What the Congress party will discover is that this new coalition will be extremely volatile and, indeed, might leave many of them wishing the Left was still around.
Meanwhile, the Left parties have dared the Congress to fight the next Lok Sabha elections on the India-US nuclear deal as they believe voters will either not care or reject the Congress stand. But, the Congress seems to believe it is on to a good plank and the UPA government has already started media campaigns on the nuclear deal.
With no sign that India’s rising inflation will start tapering, let alone falling, even as elections march closer, Congress president and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi appears to have signed up for the nuclear deal to be the issue in the next election.
While the Congress party may believe a single big issue could help swing the electorate in its favour, will the nuclear deal work as a campaign plank?
My current reading of the electorate is that the India-US deal, however couched, will not cut much ice with India’s rural electorate, who will find the so-called benefits of the deal too distant and rather esoteric. But, it may indeed find favour with the educated, urban, middle-income voters, who perceive the Left parties as anti-reform. Still, the middle class has become highly critical of the UPA government for its failures on account of rising prices, rising interest rates and in some cases, guilt by association as in taking the blame for falling stock markets.
The Congress party and its remaining UPA partners will have to contend with the Muslim factor. Attempts have already been made by some parties, including Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), to paint the nuclear deal as an anti-Muslim measure, since, presumably it brings India closer to George Bush’s America in a strategic partnership.
The danger of losing Muslim voters to this rhetoric is quite real and the Congress and other UPA allies still seem totally oblivious to this. While this could hardly benefit the rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance, given the BJP’s ideological moorings, non-UPA parties, especially the BSP in Uttar Pradesh, the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh and the Janata Dal (Secular), or JD(S), in Karnataka could expect windfall gains if the Congress lets this perception grow by becoming the party that uses the nuclear deal as its main plank.
It is for this reason that I believe highlighting a successful nuclear deal as a poll issue could prove to be a double-edged weapon. It could help the party in holding on to its appeal among the pro-reform middle classes but it may cost the party and its allies crucial Muslim votes, particularly in states where a third alternative is already available.
The UPA’s political managers initially sounded supremely confident of proving a slim majority in a parliamentary floor test but, it is now proving to be a tough challenge. Small parties, such as the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) and Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), are busy talking to the BJP as well, while an estranged partner, the weakened Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) is not willing to come on board again without very firm promises on carving out a separate Telangana state in Andhra Pradesh, something that the local party bosses are dead-set against. And, potential allies like Karnataka’s JD(S) remain totally untrustworthy.
If the UPA government succeeds in proving its majority, support from these myriad parties and individuals will come at a huge political cost. The promises and the compromises that the UPA is making to buy support will keep it on tenterhooks and even honest brokers, such as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, can be expected to get roped into unusual projects, such as brokering a truce between the warring Ambani brothers.
Why is the UPA making such compromises? Why not seek to occupy the moral high ground by refusing to make any compromises to survive in office? After all, if the government loses the trust vote, it would still survive in office until November as a caretaker government. A minister in Vajpayee government in 1999 once told me that the Vajpayee government, which fell by one vote, actually functioned in an unhindered manner only after it lost the trust vote as no party could pressurize it. If the party was as keen on the nuclear deal as it claims to be, there is nothing that prevents the Congress from pushing ahead as a caretaker government, without pressure or threats of being ousted.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of a Delhi-based research consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.