Debating India

Sonia could learn from Atal

Tuesday 31 January 2006, by KAPOOR*Coomi

The cabinet reshuffle shows the Congress is still clueless about coalitions

It was an all-Congress show at Sunday’s swearing-in ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan. Shibu Soren and Prem Chand Gupta were the lone representatives from the allies in the long line of those waiting to take the ministerial oath. Soren was, in any case, merely returning to the coal ministry after resentfully being in the cold for eight months. Gupta has simply got an upgrade in the same post. All four top ministerial portfolios - home, finance, external affairs and HRD - remain with Congressmen. In the latest ministerial expansion, even at the MoS level, party faithfuls like Anand Sharma and Pawan Bansal have been accommodated in the external affairs and finance ministries, reducing the relevance of the existing junior ministers from the UPA partners in these prestigious ministries..

There is another significant pointer in the latest cabinet expansion. Maharashtra has a disproportionately large number of cabinet ministers. The state was already well represented by NCP’s Sharad Pawar and Praful Patel, along with Shivraj Patil, Vilas Muthemwar, Prithviraj Chauhan and Manik Rao Gawit. The addition of three senior loyalists - Murli Deora, A.R. Antulay and Sushil Kumar Shinde - as cabinet ministers seems to be the Congress’s threatening message to the NCP to stop flirting with its enemies and aspiring for a Third Front. The Maharashtra Congress, flush from its assembly byelection successes and in alliance with the popular Shiv Sena rebel, Narayan Rane, is keen to make the point that it can, if required, cut Pawar - long a thorn in its side - to size.

Clearly the Congress has learnt no lesson from the JD(S)’s totally avoidable departure last week in Karnataka. If H.D. Kumaraswamy switched sides in such haste, it was because he believed that the Karnataka Congress was trying to pull the rug from under his feet by conspiring behind its back with H.D. Deve Gowda’s bete noire, S. Siddaramaiah. The Congress, elated by its recent panchayat victories, was keen to put a weakened Gowda in his place. Speculation that it might even dissolve the assembly and seek a fresh mandate was encouraged.

It was this big brother attitude of the Congress which handicaps the party in coalition politics. India’s grand old party, which has ruled the country on its own for over four decades, is yet to come to terms with its diminished status. The Congress continues to talk down to its coalition partners - with the exception of the RJD and the Left - which makes for awkward and uneasy tie-ups everywhere. The give and take which is intrinsic in power sharing does not come naturally to a party whose imperious leaders are accustomed to holding unchallenged sway in all matters in their own domain.

The Congress should keep in mind that it is at a disadvantage compared to the BJP in one respect. Unlike the NDA, most UPA coalition partners are unnatural allies. The Congress’s post-poll allies are actually its adversaries at the state level. In the NDA, the partners such as the Akali Dal, Shiv Sena, Janata Dal(U) and Biju Janata Dal have forged state level anti-Congress fronts with the BJP over a long period of time. The disparate coalition of the UPA is held together by a common hunger for power and dislike of the BJP. But, as Kumaraswamy’s coup has established, secular scotch tape cannot always bind indefinitely.

While the UPA government is critically dependent on the Communist parties for its survival, later this year the Left will be the Congress’s main electoral adversary in both West Bengal and Kerala. The Communists have missed no opportunity to embarrass the Manmohan Singh government on its economic reform programme and its foreign policy. In contrast, the Left was a fairly muted opposition during the Vajpayee regime.

The personal chemistry between party leaders is an important component in cementing an alliance. And the instinctively withdrawn Sonia Gandhi, who for years cold-shouldered even the politicians of her own party, is obviously at a disadvantage compared to a veteran like Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who perfectly played the role of the paterfamilias. As prime minister, Vajpayee distanced himself from the BJP to emphasise that as NDA chairperson he had a larger role to play. Vajpayee bonded so well with the NDA leaders that even when Om Prakash Chautala, Vaiko and Dr Ramados finally left the NDA, they still expressed publicly their deep personal affection for him.

Sonia Gandhi’s performance as chairperson of the UPA is mixed. True, she made a gallant effort to embrace the coalition way, once her party reluctantly shelved the Pachmari resolution. Before the 2004 polls, Gandhi climbed down from her ivory tower and went calling on party leaders to solicit support for an alliance to counter the BJP, and humbly sought their guidance. Some like Jyoti Basu and M. Karunanidhi were bowled over completely.

But Gandhi’s noblesse oblige is reserved for those for whom she has high regard. She declines to interact with those with whom she is uncomfortable. Her disdain of Mulayam Singh’s lieutenant, Amar Singh, is instinctive. She humiliated him by making him feel like an interloper and wait in an ante-room when he came offering the SP’s support of a solid phalanx of 35 MPs. Because of his much advertised “humble farmer” background Deve Gowda has a chip on his shoulder that the state Congress treated his party like dirt and Sonia Gandhi did little to rectify his misgivings.

The TRS’s Chandrashekhara Rao is another disillusioned ally. The Congress is in no hurry to move forward on its pre-election promise of a separate state of Telangana. It is just a matter of time before the 5 MPs of the TRS pull out. Fence sitters like the MDMK and PMK are also weighing their options afresh before the Tamil Nadu assembly poll. Some like Karunanidhi, Laloo Prasad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan make a point of emphasising their regard for “madame” but not for her party. They grumble that the UPA chairperson is surrounded by a coterie which does not give her proper feedback.

To keep such disparate elements together, the Congress needs to stop living in its past glory and accept the reality of its reduced electoral strength. Compromise and consideration, and certainly not complacency and condescension towards partners, is the name of the game in coalition politics.

See online : The Indian Express

SPIP | template | | Site Map | Follow-up of the site's activity RSS 2.0