High on recent poll victories, Congress sets ambitious goals

High on recent poll victories, Congress sets ambitious goals

New Delhi: Emboldened by its electoral victories, an increasingly aggressive Congress party, which heads the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA), is approaching the coming winter session of Parliament with an ambitious agenda for economic reforms.

However, allies who are evincing their growing discomfort with the rising assertiveness of the party may yet scupper the effort, especially since their support is crucial in not only the Lok Sabha but also in the Rajya Sabha, where the current composition of the UPA does not have a majority. The month-long winter session is to begin from 19 November.

The Congress party, which came to power winning an unexpected 206 seats in the 543-member Lok Sabha in May, has only built on this success in subsequent assembly elections. Not only did it win in the assembly elections in Maharashtra, Haryana and Arunachal Pradesh, it also turned in an impressive performance in the 7 November by-elections, winning 10 of the 31 seats polled.

Two weeks after the assembly elections, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh used the platform of the World Economic Forum to announce that his government would carry out large-scale financial sector reforms to catalyse economic growth.

“The forward-looking agenda pronounced by the Prime Minister was approved by the core committee (a high-level body headed by Congress chief Sonia Gandhi). The party is in full support of it," a senior minister, who is also a part of the core group, said, on condition of anonymity.

Another member of the council of ministers who, too, didn’t want to be identified, admitted that the party was more confident of getting its way in the current environment.

Repeated electoral victories also seem to have made members of the Congress party more confident.

On Wednesday, buoyed by the party’s performance in the by-elections, a beaming Abhishek Singhvi, spokesperson for the Congress party, said: “By-election results reinforce our belief that Congress remains the only pan-Indian political force."

Crucial allies, however, term the confidence as “arrogance".

“Of course, Congress leaders have become arrogant. But what can we do? We do not have any option," said a senior Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader. Pointing to the Congress “posturing" in the run-up to the assembly elections, the leader, who did not want to be identified, said: “The Congress leaders are too big brotherly."

Citing the NCP’s poor performance in the April-May general election—it won only eight of the 22 Lok Sabha seats it contested, while the Congress won 17 of 26 in Maharashtra—the Congress forced the NCP to contest only in 114 seats in the 13 October assembly polls, 10 seats fewer than it did in 2004.

Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader Saugata Ray admitted that the Congress party had a reason to “be happy about", but added that the party “cannot pass any legislation without the support of the allies in Parliament. In fact, no major party can run the government without smaller parties".

Besides, the Congress has only 72 members in the Upper House, Rajya Sabha, which has 231 members currently. Crucial Bills, except money Bills, have to be passed by both Houses. Money Bills are passed by the Lower House, and the Upper House can only make suggestions for amendments.

Party leaders admit that they are aware of this weakness. “All the Bills have to be passed on consensus," said V. Narayanasamy, minister of state for parliamentary affairs. “Reform Bills also could be moved after evolving consensus," he added.

Although the government was keen on disinvesting part of its holding in state-owned companies, it could offload only 5% of its stake each in NTPC Ltd and Rural Electrification Corp. Ltd and 10% in Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam Ltd.

Keeping in mind the public objections raised by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the TMC against disinvestment, the Congress party justified the move and said that as decided in 2004 when the UPA first came to power, the money would go into the National Investment Fund (NIF) to service social sector programmes and not to make up budgetary shortfall.

However, in a recent decision, the government said the money from divestment will, for the next three years, go towards bridging the deficit and not into NIF—another indication of the Congress party’s intent.

Some allies, however, are having none of this.

“They should remember that people have given a clear verdict in favour of them in the general election, and the people will not tolerate if they become too arrogant. They will not be able to survive without allies in many of the states," added the NCP leader quoted in the first instance.

In fact, the Congress is in power on its own only in Andhra Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh. Its governments in Rajasthan and Haryana had to seek the support of independent members of legislative assembly to cross the required half-way mark in the respective state assemblies. And the state unit in Andhra Pradesh has been in turmoil since former chief minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy died in a helicopter crash in September. Supporters of Reddy’s son, Jagan Mohan Reddy, are demanding that he be made the chief minister.

The Congress party is a junior partner to its allies in Tamil Nadu, Jammu and Kashmir and West Bengal.

“The present euphoria is without any basis. The election victories have created an impression among the party leaders that the party could go alone. They tried it in Maharashtra, but did not proceed with it after better sense prevailed upon them," said Subrata Mukherjee, a political analyst.

“Congress leaders should come back to realities and accept the smaller parties. If they do it well, the party will be able to rule the Centre for a long time," he added.