Grand but can't carry small parties

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By MANINI CHATTERJEE in Delhi
  • Published 20.07.08
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New Delhi, July 20: Defections and abstentions by individual opposition MPs may help the UPA government survive the trust vote on Tuesday, but there is a growing foreboding in Congress circles that the decision of smaller parties to vote against the government and the total breakdown of relations with the Left may cast a much longer — and darker — shadow on the party’s future.

The Congress was banking on getting the support of erstwhile allies Janata Dal (Secular) and Telengana Rashtra Samiti and drafting in the Rashtriya Lok Dal with the bait of partnership in a larger Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance in Uttar Pradesh.

That Ajit Singh has chosen to throw in his lot with Mayavati — despite the traditional hostility between Jats and Dalits in Uttar Pradesh — is indicative of a much larger realignment of forces that could take place in the run-up to the 15th general election, a senior Congress leader admitted.

Similarly, the decision of the TRS and the JD(S) to oppose the UPA reflects the “trust deficit” the Congress suffers from. But most of all, the bitter parting of ways between the Congress and the Left means the loss of a principled ally in the future which had played a key role in giving legitimacy to Sonia Gandhi’s attempts to take on a secular and “left of centre” mantle, Congress insiders privately conceded.

With both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi coming out strongly in favour of the nuclear deal, no Congress member “will dare” oppose the Prime Minister’s decision to risk the government for the deal. The chance of any “defections” from the UPA ranks is also minimal at this stage.

But for politicians across the board, Tuesday’s trust vote is not the culmination but the beginning of a new round of political churning. And the more sober analysts within the ruling party — although tight-lipped in public — fear that the Congress might end up losing more than it has gained in this era of coalition politics.

The Congress, which had enjoyed single-party rule for several decades, took a long time to come to terms with the changed political equations in India. It was only in 2004 that the Congress shed its big-party hubris and Sonia personally wooed smaller parties and stitched up a loose alliance. The support of the Left parties led by the CPM — which, too, had taken over a decade to shed its deep-seated anti-Congressism — was crucial in the installation of the UPA government four years ago.

The failure of that arrangement, Congress supporters fear, will give a potent weapon to both the BJP and the smaller parties in the general election, whenever it is held, and impact on the contours of the government which is formed after the polls.

The BJP’s “Prime Minister-in-waiting”, L.K. Advani, has already slammed the Congress for not respecting the “coalition dharma” by insisting on going ahead with a deal despite the Left’s oft-stated opposition. The BJP’s claim that it alone ran a coalition government to its full term will only get bolstered by the UPA-Left breakdown. That theme is likely to be a principal poll plank of the BJP.

For the Left and other smaller parties, the Congress’s “betrayal” this time round is only further proof that India’s Grand Old Party cannot be trusted in any coalition arrangement even though its grandeur is long past. The Congress, they point out, has pulled the rug every time it has offered “outside” support to a government.

Indira Gandhi did it to Charan Singh in 1980, her son did the same to Chandra Shekhar in 1991, and their party repeated the act with Deve Gowda and then I.K. Gujral in the mid-1990s.

And its record as a partner or leader of a coalition has not been any better. The Congress-JD(S) arrangement in Karnataka fell apart, Deve Gowda insists, because the Congress was bent on breaking his party. The Congress-PDP arrangement in Kashmir also ended in divorce this month; and the Congress-NCP alliance may have survived in Maharashtra but has had its share of tensions and could come apart after the next election.

The Congress has now managed to get the Samajwadi Party on its side, but even Congress leaders who have little patience with the Left’s ideological intransigence on economic and foreign policy issues admit that the Samajwadis are no match for the Left in terms of “reliability”.

The Left made its positions clear at every stage and did not demand any benefits of a dubious nature, a senior Congress minister said, ruing the “political instability” that is likely to consume national politics and erode the Congress’s bargaining power now that the Centre-Left axis underpinning the UPA government has come to an acrimonious end.