If the United Progressive Alliance has survived close to nine years in office despite multiple crises and challenges, it is no thanks to any intrinsic strength. Indeed, the Manmohan Singh government has made every conceivable mistake, faced potentially ruinous scandals and scams, alienated just about every partner in the ruling alliance, and emerged none the worse for it. So perhaps the Prime Minister was not being arrogant when he spoke of his government enduring over the next year and his own determination to push through key economic reforms regardless of whether or not there was political support for it. But as ought to be obvious to anyone watching the interplay of political interests on the national stage, the secret of the UPA’s longevity lies almost entirely in the contradictions inherent to coalitional politics. Partners have walked out and issued threats without being able to significantly alter the basic arithmetic required to keep the government in power. When Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) pulled out of the alliance citing differences over allowing Foreign Direct Investment in multi-brand retail, the government was readily propped up by the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party.
The TMC’s exit made no impact whatsoever. Far from it, the party ended up isolating itself. Mamatadi could not even muster the support of 50 MPs required to move a no-confidence motion. Today, in the aftermath of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s departure on the Sri Lankan Tamils issue, there are fresh questions around the government’s ability to ensure its safety by continuing to play one party against another. The TMC and the DMK together account for 37 seats. Their absence has reduced the government to a minority but crucially no party has made this point where it matters: on the floor of the Lok Sabha. From the Bharatiya Janata Party through the DMK, the TMC and the SP, there has been a cacophony of sounds about Team Manmohan Singh having forfeited the moral right to continue in office. But governments are not obliged to relinquish power on moral grounds. They go only when the Opposition is actually able to topple them in Parliament, something the BJP is unwilling to attempt despite the UPA’s obvious lack of numbers in the House and its apparent unpopularity outside. The government hangs by a thread, which no party seems able or willing to cut. Like a bad joke, Mulayam Singh’s warnings have begun to fray at the edges. A mere two days ago, he threatened to withdraw support in the Budget session. On Friday, he typically went back on it even as didi in Kolkata issued a fresh ultimatum. This cat and mouse game is likely to continue till the natural end of the life of the current Parliament.