For completing nine years in office, a bruised and battered UPA owes much to the BJP that helped save it even while declaring it dead
The United Progressive Alliance has an ugly black eye, its body is riddled with bullets and it is gasping for breath. If these are last-stage symptoms, then the ruling coalition has been in last stage for almost its entire second term.
In television studios as in Bharatiya Janata Party press conferences, every night has been the last night for the Manmohan Singh government. The BJP has mentally dispatched the regime many times over while the daily drill for TV anchors is to avow that the end-game has begun.
Yet the government is not just going, going, not gone, it has completed nine incredible years. The last government to cross this milestone exited in 1977 — 36 years ago. But the Manmohan Singh-Sonia Gandhi partnership may well turn out to be able to better this record. And here is why: though Indira Gandhi’s first term lasted 11 years, from 1966 to 1977, she snatched the last two years via an Emergency that emasculated the Opposition even as it armed her with draconian powers. If and when the UPA completes its second term, it will have done so legitimately without corralling democracy or the Opposition, and indeed with the loud, live wire BJP at the head of an unforgiving Opposition. And the UPA will have done so in an environment made adverse by coalitional politics, TRP-driven cut-throat news, and watch-dog activism by constitutional bodies.
So will Manmohan Singh be the first Prime Minister after Jawaharlal Nehru to complete two unambiguously clear terms? Theoretically, the government is beyond rescue. It has erred without respite. Every day has brought a new scam even as earlier horrors such as 2G and Coalgate have morphed into new nightmares for Dr. Singh and his team. Two senior Cabinet Ministers have departed in disgrace with the Prime Minister’s Office barely managing to escape the torrent of accusations. The war between the ruling side and the Comptroller and Auditor-General was still being fought when the government earned a sharp reprimand from the Supreme Court for meddling with the Central Bureau of Investigation in the coal block allocation case. Inevitably, there were murmurs that the cover-up was intended to protect someone important.
The question to ask against this explosive background is a fairly simple one: how does a government with apparently no redeeming feature and a ‘compromised’ Prime Minister get to enjoy one of the longest tenures in India’s electoral history? More significantly, why does the Opposition tolerate such a government being in power? The mystery deepens in the context of the UPA’s minority status. The ruling alliance is perceived to have reached the tipping point post the exit of the Trinamool Congress and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. A gentle nudge from the Opposition, and it would conceivably keel over. Yet what we have seen is all noise and no action.
At their press briefings, BJP spokespersons will bristle at the government clinging on despite scaling ever new heights on corruption. The tone tends to get shriller when Parliament is in session. “Paani sar ke upar chalagaya (the regime’s misdoings are beyond our endurance),” an angry Sushma Swaraj declared on the day Parliament passed the Finance Bill.
What the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha did not disclose was that the BJP had walked out of both houses, allowing Budget 2013 an obstacle-free passage. In effect, Ms Swaraj had pronounced the death verdict on a government that she herself helped save. Expectedly, she was asked why the BJP did not muster support for a no-confidence motion. Her answer was she did not see the point of such a motion. But why? If the government was as unpopular as she claimed, surely there would be a rush of support for a motion aimed at toppling it. At the minimum, a confidence test would show where the non-UPA parties stood with respect to a government judged to be corrupt beyond redemption.
The BJP has ambushed Singh & Co everywhere — in TV studios, at press meets and on the streets — except where it counts: on the floor of the Lok Sabha where the government can in fact be overthrown. In this case, a government broken in spirit and body by internal desertions and virtually hanging by a thread. The BJP’s single-point demand has been that the Prime Minister should resign. But would he up and quit only because the competition was not up to doing its job?
Missed by design
The irony is all the more for the many opportunities the Opposition appears to have missed by design, among them a staggering number of cut motions proposed against the Railway and general budgets. If the government is defeated on a cut motion, it is obliged to resign. On paper, things were sticky for the treasury side because after the loss of its own majority, it existed at the pleasure of its two outside props, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party. Journalists braced themselves for another round of number-crunching but the occasion never arose. Forget sweating for numbers, the government had it as easy as if it had just been voted to power. Not one cut motion was voted upon, and as the Finance Bill came up for passage, Parliament emptied out with every party in the Opposition suddenly finding some reason to stage a walkout. For Mulayam Singh, with a critical veto vote, the reason was China. It was as if the Opposition had conspired to save the government!
A lazy explanation for this is that a cunning government will have anyway purchased the needed support. The BJP has argued that Opposition initiatives will remain ineffective as long the government is able to deploy the CBI against Mulayam Singh and Mayawati. If this were indeed the case, what could be a better time to expose the government’s skulduggery than when it was in trouble with the apex court on precisely this issue? Consider the impact of the two biggest politicians from Uttar Pradesh lifting the cover on their travails with the CBI coinciding with a national uproar over the agency’s manipulation.
There is undoubtedly more to all this than meets the eye. The truth is that no party wants an election even with everything going wrong with the UPA. Mulayam Singh is aware that his son and U.P. Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav is in a mess. Mayawati needs to work some more on wresting back her party’s winning caste coalition.
But the most intriguing is the case of the BJP whose fortunes have been held to be on the up and up since Narendra Modi’s stunning, head-turning arrival on the national scene. The Gujarat Chief Minister knows he has a cult following among the middle class and the urban young, and has gone all out to create opportunities for direct engagement with these segments. Yet curiously, the BJP leadership itself has not acknowledged the phenomenon as robustly as one would expect. If anything, party biggies seem in denial about the supposed Modi magic. And this despite the clamour in the rank and file to have him run for Prime Minister and despite awareness that Mr. Modi is probably the BJP’s best bet.
Recently Ms Swaraj outlined a complex three-stage process for deciding who, if anyone, would be named the BJP’s prime ministerial nominee. Nothing underscores the internal discomfort on Mr. Modi as emphatically as this. Veterans like L.K. Advani and Ms Swaraj have worked hard to reach where they have, and it is not easy for them to hand over the party on a platter to Mr. Modi only for him to turn it into a one-man affair. Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan sees himself as second to none, and said as much at the BJP’s March 2013 national council meeting with Mr. Modi present and looking embarrassed. Mr. Chouhan said while Gujarat was a developed State, his achievement was greater for lifting a bankrupt State from abject poverty.
Mr. Modi is a double-edged weapon. He will unite the middle class and urban young for the BJP but he will also likely unite all others against the BJP. Nitish Kumar has already raised the red flag but the looming figure of Mr. Modi is a threat to all chief ministers and politicians drawing their support from minorities and the non-shining sections.
Then comes the final question: is Mr. Modi all that he is made out to be? Four recent surveys have spoken of the great Modi effect. But even with Mr. Modi in command, there was no indication in the surveys that the NDA would get a clear majority in 2014. In one, Mr. Modi beat Manmohan Singh for popularity by a single point. Two other polls gave Mr. Modi a big thumbs up but their samples were either entirely urban or illogically skewed in favour of urban Indians. Only one poll went into seat prediction and it gave the NDA 220 Lok Sabha seats with Mr. Modi as leader.
Modi fetching the NDA 220 seats? Forget whether there will be at all an NDA with Mr. Modi. The Congress alone got 206 seats in 2009 — and without fanfare or fuss. The BJP has miles to go. Its corruption plank has been shaken by the loss of Karnataka and the Chhattisgarh killings have knocked the claim of better law and order. No wonder the UPA is going, going, not gone.