New Delhi/Mumbai: Just as the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was poised for a makeover ahead of a big policy push, the coalition suffered an unexpected setback on Friday as Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), an otherwise reliable partner, escalated its revolt.
Analysts say the timing of the NCP’s dissent suggests that the intent of the party is to carve out a bigger role for itself in the government. NCP leaders may have been emboldened by the fact that the government is in flux after the exit of Pranab Mukherjee and because the deterioration in its relations with the Trinamool Congress has left it vulnerable.
The NCP’s move is “strategic” for its positioning in the 2014 general election, said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think tank.
“The allies want to play the ‘insider-outsider’ role. If the Congress is a sinking ship, they will be able to hedge, and if it is coming up strongly, all of them can be together, too,” Mehta said.
The Congress is trying to placate its ally the NCP after fresh talk about expanding Rahul Gandhi’s role. Mint’s Liz Mathew explains
After articulating their discomfort at allegedly being taken for granted by the Congress on Thursday, both NCP ministers in the coalition, Pawar and Praful Patel, claimed to have submitted their resignations.
While there was no confirmation of the resignations from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), at a press conference in New Delhi, Patel was ambiguous in his response when asked whether the NCP ministers had formally resigned.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh moved to defuse the crisis. Gandhi met Pawar, and the Prime Minister spoke to the agriculture minister on the phone. The PMO issued a statement in which Singh hailed Pawar as a “very valued colleague”.
Pawar’s “wisdom and experience are a great asset to our government”, said the statement.
Sandeep Shastri, a political analyst and pro vice-chancellor of Jain University in Bangalore, said the fresh crisis in the UPA is yet another indication that the Congress has not absorbed the lessons of running a coalition.
“It also reflects the vulnerability of the Congress leadership. The party has become more vulnerable due to repeated controversies and scandals,” Shastri said.
Pawar, upset with the Congress for “ignoring his seniority and experience” in the UPA, has been assured that steps will be taken immediately to address his grievances, said a Congress leader familiar with the development who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Pawar and Patel, who is minister for heavy industries, were absent from the cabinet meeting chaired by the Prime Minister on Thursday.
After a brief meeting of its top leadership at Pawar’s residence on Friday, the NCP indicated it is not considering breaking ties with the Congress—both at the Centre and in Maharashtra, where both parties are running a coalition government,
At the same time, Patel told reporters in New Delhi that his party had “serious issues” over the functioning of the government and the coalition. He refused to confirm whether he and Pawar have offered to resign. Patel said his party leadership will meet on 23 July to decide on its future action.
“It’s time for the UPA to gear up for the next election... The government should be more decisive, more committed to the issues before the people of India,” Patel said.
Although he rejected as “absurd” the reports that Pawar was upset over the denial of the No. 2 slot in the Union cabinet, Patel said the party had raised “completely different” issues with the Prime Minister in a communication sent on Thursday evening after the voting for the presidential election was over.
“We discussed the same issues, which were decided at the party meeting a month ago, with Sonia Gandhi also,” he said.
Reflecting the growing discord between the ruling party and the NCP, Patel blamed “some Congress leaders” for fuelling speculation over his party’s differences of opinion.
“Unreasonable and unnecessary comments are being made by sections in the Congress party to create a wedge. These issues should be addressed in the larger interest of the coalition,” he said.
Patel, however, argued that Pawar deserves the No. 2 position, which is now being given to defence minister A.K. Antony, after Mukherjee resigned from the government to contest the presidential election.
“The issue of No. 2 has been blown out of proportion... By virtue of his stature, Pawar sits next to Sonia (in Parliament) and used to sit next to Pranab Mukherjee (in cabinet meetings)... The UPA and the Congress leadership realize that by his stature, he brings much more to the table,” he said.
The NCP’s open revolt and the public statements came a day after the Congress successfully rallied its allies as well as friendly parties to unite behind Mukherjee in the presidential poll.
Also on Thursday, Congress general secretary and Sonia Gandhi’s son, Rahul Gandhi, had announced that he will play a “bigger” role in the government and in the party. With the presidential election out of the way, the government is due for a makeover before pushing ahead with policy measures aimed at ridding itself of the tag of a non-performer.
Congress leaders said Pawar’s “posturing” is also linked to Rahul Gandhi’s announcement on Thursday. “The NCP is assuming that if Rahul becomes a minister in the cabinet, he would naturally become No. 2 to the Prime Minister. In that scenario, his position would further go down in terms of protocol,” said the Congress leader cited above, who didn’t want to be named.
Kumar Ketkar, a political analyst and editor of Marathi newspaper Divya Marathi, concurred. “Pawar is feeling threatened due to recent developments, especially with talk of Rahul Gandhi playing a greater role either in government or party... He is trying to remain relevant by making such postures, but he will not go to the extent of quitting the government, which also means the end of the party’s rule in the state, which is a milch cow for them,” he said.
PTI and Bloomberg contributed to this story.