Mamata Banerjee’s revolt ought to have been an adrenaline-rush moment for the Opposition. Instead, it seems to be ensuring the government’s survival
The common-sense view of politics is that it is farcical. Sometimes absurdly so, as was seen last week. The rush of fast-paced, oversized images that television relentlessly beamed as Mamata Banerjee walked out of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-II suggested an overwhelming, shattering climax that just did not happen.
Ms Banerjee’s surprise revolt over the new economic announcements — foreign direct investment (FDI) in multibrand retail, diesel price hike and the cap on supply of LPG cylinders — was potentially catastrophic for the Manmohan Singh government. Yet a week after the West Bengal Chief Minister reduced the ruling alliance to a numerical minority, it is the latter that is defiantly triumphant. Team Manmohan hasn’t keeled over in fright. It has drawn itself up to its full height, hero-like swagger and all, while the Opposition appears at sixes and sevens.
To be sure, there have been several mock mutinies. The Left and the Samajwadi Party (SP) called a bandh against the economic initiatives, which affected normal life in some parts. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) too bestirred itself to speak against the reforms. Nitin Gadkari and Sitaram Yechury held hands while Mulayam Singh hit the streets with the party’s followers. The SP chief fairly bristled: he called the Congress anti-poor, swore to fight it till eternity, spoke of a Third Front, hinted at running for Prime Minister and occupied a tantalising cliffhanger on supporting a Mamata-sponsored future parliamentary resolution against FDI in retail. But the postscript was predictable: he would back the government in order to safeguard the nation from “communal forces.”
Now consider this twist. The SP may have heroically rescued the government from the BJP but the BJP itself looks nowhere near wanting to unseat Manmohan & Co. A day before Trinamool Congress-UPA relations irretrievably broke down, Mr. Gadkari was at a press conference where his only concern seemed to be the safety of the government. The BJP chief’s answer to every question was that his party would do nothing to destabilise the government. “No, we will not move a no-confidence motion. It is not our job to topple the government,” and so forth. The painful protestations forced some in the nonplussed audience to shout back: “Of course, toppling is your job!” How did the BJP, with a consistent track record of unruly behaviour, come suddenly to affect such saintly qualities? This was the party that had boisterously shut down Parliament over Coalgate and vowed not to rest until it had secured the Prime Minister’s resignation for his role in “the biggest scam in Independent India.” What would happen to the BJP’s plans to storm the country with its “village to metro” anti-Coalgate protests if Mr. Gadkari was simultaneously going to be at the service of the government?
No one can dispute the Left parties’ genuine opposition to economic reforms, and undoubtedly theirs was the most legitimate presence at the bandh. It is their core philosophy, their bread and butter. Even so, the Left parties are clearly wary of taking their protest to the next level which can logically only be the ouster of the government. The dilemma was evident in the way the CPI(M)’s Prakash Karat framed his opposition. He said the government would lose its right to continue if it didn’t roll back the new measures. Surely, the government, however unforgivable its failings, will not itself exit to oblige the Opposition.
The Indian Opposition situation recalls the Republican Party’s frustrations vis-à-vis President Barack Obama. Venting her anger at Presidential nominee Mitt Romney, conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham said recently: “If you can’t beat Barack Obama with this record, then shut down the party. Shut it down.”
There cannot be two views on the record of the UPA-II regime. Indeed, there comes a moment in every government’s life when nothing it does can redeem it in the popular imagination. Rajiv Gandhi’s government lost its innocence after the Bofors allegations. The fate of the Narasimha Rao ministry was sealed after the Babri Masjid breathed its last and the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government could never live down the 2002 Gujarat anti-Muslim pogrom.
Manmohan Singh’s second term had reached that critical point with 18 months still left for the general election. After 2G, the Commonwealth Games and Coalgate, the stoutest defence could not save the government from being seen as corrupt, inefficient and unconscionably indifferent to the plight of the aam aadmi in whose name the Congress and its allies had won two consecutive elections. It didn’t matter whether the government’s guilt was actually established in these scams. It didn’t matter that the best and brightest Ministers furiously disputed the zeros added to the loot figure. It didn’t matter because, as one senior Minister unhappily admitted, the government had lost the perception game.
From 2010 to 2012
Worse, the government had lost its grip on the economy and the once blameless Prime Minister was under critical domestic and international scrutiny. In the worst of times, Dr. Singh had two fallbacks. The Indian economy, which seemed miraculously insulated from global recessionary trends. And his own glowing image. As a former media adviser to Dr. Singh once said, he was “the most honest PM leading the most dishonest government.” In 2010, the British daily, The Independent, described Dr. Singh as “one of the world’s most revered leaders,” one who had “transformed a nation of 1.2 billion people.” The same year, Newsweek adjudged him leader of leaders, “the leader other leaders love,” and Forbes paid the highest possible tribute, saying he had been “universally praised as India’s best PM since Nehru.”
Cut to mid-2012. The Indian press was asking probing questions about the helmsman’s personal honesty while the foreign media seemed to have given him up as a lost cause. It was against this background that the government, in an almost last-ditch effort, unleashed an audacious package of reforms aimed at national and international investors. Obviously the non-UPA parties were going to see this as an affront. Yet they were helpless in the face of the UPA numbers. So when the Trinamool Congress, a ruling ally, struck the first blow, they were provided the perfect setting for some collective non-UPA action. This was their adrenaline-rush moment: The government that could do no right was on the verge of collapse and the decision whether it stayed or went was in their hands. But the moment passed with critical players yo-yoing over what to do next.
So why did the SP not go the whole hog? Why is the BJP being uncharacteristically coy? After all, these are two parties that at least theoretically stand to benefit from the government’s exit and early elections. Mulayam Singh’s problem is twofold. He can only act if he is sure of being able to control the fallout of his action. If he withdrew support, and the government managed to survive, he would be worse off than before, possibly losing the Central assistance required to shore up the cash-strapped Akhilesh Yadav government. Today’s reality is that political parties need resources to fight elections which can only come from mega projects. Second, the SP chief’s aim is to lead the Third Front whose barest outlines are not visible at the moment.
A better strategy for him is to keep the government in a frustrating state of tension, extract all the concessions he can, and bide for the right time. This explains his deliberately provocative back and forth statements.
The BJP may alternate between aggression and sobriety but the simple truth is that it has no leverage as long as the SP and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) support the government. Even should the SP pull the plug, the political resistance to early elections will likely keep the government afloat. For every party that wants a midterm poll, there is another that lives in fear of that prospect. The longer the BSP and the Left wait, the better their chances of retrieving lost ground.
The BJP itself is miles from being battle ready. In a recent midterm opinion poll done by NDTV, the BJP emerged with 143 Lok Sabha seats to the Congress’s 127. Parties outside the UPA and National Democratic Alliance notched up 151 seats. Even in a down-and-out state, the Congress would seem to be not far behind the BJP whose other major problem is its inability to attract allies, many of whom have their Muslim constituencies to worry about. The party also has to choose its prime ministerial candidate from among multiple claimants. Narendra Modi’s victory in Gujarat can only complicate matters.
At its forthcoming national executive meet, the BJP will make all the right noises. But can it go any further?