Congress' floor managers have their task cut out

Only nine months ago, it was an embarrassment of riches for the Congress as political parties queued up to offer support to the re-elected United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Today, as Parliament gets down to discuss the second budget of the second UPA government, the numbers no longer look so good.

It was a euphoric moment for Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi as the results were tallied on May 17, 2009. The Congress, breaching the 200 mark for the first time since 1991, had 208 members of its own in the Lok Sabha. Together the seven constituents of the UPA totalled 263 MPs, just 10 short of a simple majority. With independents and smaller parties rushing to fill the vacuum, UPA-II was home and dry, but only just about.

Fortunately for Dr. Singh and Ms. Gandhi, there was more to come. Success begets success, and who should come bearing letters of support than three estranged friends from the heartland — the Samajwadi Party's Mulayam Singh, the Rashtriya Lok Dal's Lalu Prasad and the Bahujan Samaj Party's Mayawati. In the past, all three had alternatively wooed the Congress and forsaken it, and the Congress, basking in the unexpected scale of its victory, and sensing a measure of desperation in the renewed offer of friendship, decided it would have to be a one-way relationship: The Congress would accept their support but give them nothing in return.

At this point, this is how the numbers are stacked up. The total is 263 — the Congress 208, Trinamool Congress 19, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam 18, Nationalist Congress Party 9, National Conference 3, Indian Union Muslim League 2, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha 2, Kerala Congress (Mani) 1 and Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (ally of the DMK) 1. The numbers went up to 269 with the addition of the Janata Dal (Secular) 3, Bodoland People's Front 1, Nagaland People's Front 1 and the Sikkim Democratic Front 1.

It reached a heady 316, once the trio from the heartland gave the green signal — the SP 22, the BSP 21 and the RJD 4.

As Dr. Singh took the oath of office, there must have been a sense of watching an action replay for the SP and the BSP. In 2004 too, they unilaterally offered support to the UPA. However, over time the equations soured. In June 2008, the BSP withdrew its support, while the SP, which had once again come on board at the time of the July 2008 vote of confidence, went separate in the May 2009 general election.

Today, confronted by galloping food inflation, and forced to take a position on the fuel price hike, the SP and the BSP have signalled that the friendship is over. They have been joined by the RJD. In a TV interview, Mr. Lalu Prasad thundered that the Congress could not take him for granted. “I am not with this government,” he said. For the SP and the RJD, the women's bill is another point of departure with the Congress. It would be worth their while to tell the BJP not to push the bill in return for support on the floor of the House. The Congress is only too aware that this deal is a real possibility.

Take away the three parties, and the numbers plunge to 268. This is how: After the Jharkhand Assembly election, the UPA lost the JMM (2 MPs) and gained the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (1 MP).

Of course, the SP, BSP and the RJD have not formally withdrawn support to UPA II. The SP and the BSP will also be wary of fighting another election so soon after losing the last one. The SP is now in a very poor form while the BSP is faced with an ascendant Congress in Uttar Pradesh. But in politics, accidents cannot be ruled out. After all, in 1999, Atal Bihari Vajpayee lost the trust vote by a single vote.

Suffice it to say that the Congress' floor managers have their task cut out. They have to keep the UPA flock together while keeping a sharp eye out for fresh support. (Among possible new recruits is expelled SP MP Jaya Prada). The allies seem to have fallen in line. Yet it is worth remembering that they are being called upon to defend the government on such sensitive matters as inflation, fuel price hike, curtailment of fertilizer subsidy.

Not an easy job, especially for Mamata Banerjee and M. Karunanidhi, who have State elections coming up in 2011.

Clarification

In the above report, the eighth paragraph said “Take away the three parties, and the numbers plunge to 268.” Earlier, the fourth paragraph said “At this point, this is how the numbers are stacked up. The total is 263 — the Congress 208, Trinamool Congress 19, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam 18, Nationalist Congress Party 9, National Conference 3, Indian Union Muslim League 2, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha 2, Kerala Congress (Mani) 1 and Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (ally of the DMK) 1. The numbers went up to 269 with the addition of the Janata Dal (Secular) 3, Bodoland People's Front 1, Nagaland People's Front 1 and the Sikkim Democratic Front 1.” A reader said that the total is 264, but there is no mention of the member from the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen which is also a partner in the UPA.

The writer clarifies: The MIM was not a pre-poll ally of the Congress. The Congress contested all 42 seats in Andhra Pradesh. The MIM contested one and won one. So the figure 263 is correct. But the MIM was among the smaller parties that supported the UPA. So one more should have been added to the figure of 269 to take the total to 270. Today this figure stands reduced to 269 — because of the exit of the JMM and the addition of the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha.

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