Thanks to Left support, UPA-I faced no serious threats for much of its term. By contrast, UPA-II is dependent on fly-by-night supporters to stay in power.

On April 27, 2010, courtesy of a historic ruling by Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar, sections of the Opposition moved cut motions on the demand for grants which are not discussed in the House. However, as the division of votes showed — 289 for and 201 against — the challenge did not really stretch the government.

Yet as the second United Progressive Alliance Government completes one year in office, it must fervently hope that such tests do not come up more often. For, the final scores point as much to the disarray in the Opposition as to the government's precarious numbers. Take away the Bahujan Samaj Party's 21 MPs, and it is immediately apparent that UPA-II is a minority regime dependent on fly-by-night supporters to keep it in power.

The irony is difficult to miss. When the Congress breached the 200-mark in the May 2009 election, the consensus in the opinion-making class was that freed of Left support, UPA-II was assured of a trouble-free five-year term. As if to confirm the impression, the Congress was besieged by post-poll suitors. Smaller parties like the Bodoland People's Front and the Sikkim Democratic Front quickly signed up to be a part of the ruling alliance. Yet many more queued up outside 7, Race Course Road : the Samajwadi Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Janata Dal (secular) and the BSP. All four parties sent letters of support to Rashtrapati Bhawan, enabling Manmohan Singh to take the oath of office with numbers upwards of 300.

More make-believe than real

In truth, the numbers were more make-believe than real. All four external supporters had had a bitter falling out with the Congress. Besides, three out of the four, the SP, the BSP and the RJD, were from the heartland, where the compulsions of State elections would soon take over from the politics of Central give and take, rendering even a medium-term understanding with the Congress unviable. But that was in the future. For now, the Congress was happy to bask in the overwhelming show of hands. The illusion of strong outside support won over the hard reality of actual numbers.

As a consequence, Congress strategists opted for a minimalist government — not in terms of ministerial strength but in terms of party participation. Only five parties were sworn in with the Congress. They were: the Trinamool Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the National Conference and the Indian Union Muslim League. The combined strength of the five parties in government was only 51. Of course, there were members of the UPA who were not in government, among them the All-India Majlis-E-Itehadul Muslimmen, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, the SDF, the BPF, Kerala Congress (Mani) and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (no longer in UPA). But even with all of them on board, the UPA was short of a clear majority, and worse, without a steady and bankable external ally.

Contrast this situation with the real comfort of numbers through much of the UPA's first term. UPA-I started out as a pre-poll alliance of 12 parties which together won 219 seats — only a few seats more than what the Congress on its own picked up five years later. But in compensation the alliance got the rock-solid backing of the Left Front's 60-odd MPs. The Left cover rendered immaterial all other props. As in 2009, the SP and the BSP were only too keen to join the UPA-I bandwagon, but whether they did so or not had no bearing on the government's stability.

Over the next four years, the Congress had its share of troubles — both with its UPA partners and its external allies. The Telangana Rashtra Samithi quit the UPA in 2006 followed by the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in 2007. The Congress-BSP relations took a downturn in U.P. However, thanks to the overarching Left umbrella, UPA-I never once went into the danger zone. It was only in July 2008, when the Left finally withdrew support over the Indo-U.S. civil-nuclear deal, that UPA-I felt the heat of its dwindling numbers. The Congress' frantic search for a replacement brought the SP to its doors, and though Amar Singh and Mulayam Singh bailed out the government during the July 22 vote of confidence, their support came at a huge cost. Predictably the Congress-SP pact came undone before the April-May 2009 general election.

Data compiled by PRS Legislative research show that during the term of UPA-I, the Lok Sabha Speaker called for a division of votes on 21 occasions. Twenty of these were non-serious divisions, posing no threat whatever to the government. The only time division portended danger was after the Left's withdrawal. The division of numbers on July 22, 2008, the day Prime Minister Manmohan Singh tested his majority in the House, was: 275 for and 256 against. It was a close shave for the government, but fortunately for UPA-I, its first and only serious test came towards the end of its term — with just eight months left for the general election. As against this, the UPA-II government's first big test came within a year of taking office.

The Congress and the Left had a tension-filled relationship. But because the Left had a clear agenda and was upfront about the redlines, the Congress was spared nasty surprises. The Left was also committed to the Manmohan Singh government in a way its current external allies are not. The Left kept the government going for four years. On the other hand, the SP, the BSP and the RJD are fickle allies who will keep the Congress on edge if only to able to strike last-minute deals. The Congress-SP-BSP-RJD understanding, which was dramatically visible at the time of the formation of the UPA-II government, came unstuck inside of a year over the Women's Reservation Bill. Yet only a month later, with the cut motions slated to come up in the Lok Sabha, the BSP was ready with its rescue act. The SP and the RJD too staged a walkout, allowing the government to pull off an easy victory. What is the real story behind these intriguing moves? No one knows for sure. Will these parties stick around the next time division is called? No one knows for sure. But this much is obvious: The Congress can lower its guard only at its peril.

Within UPA-II, the odd behaviour of the Trinamool Congress and the strained relationship between the Congress and the NCP have added to the Congress' troubles. Mamata Banerjee is spoiling for a fight, and though logic strongly dictates a Congress-TC pact for the coming State election, she can never be trusted not to up and quit. She seems to have convinced herself that she can win that election all by herself. If that happens, the Congress' dependence on the SP-BSP-RJD trio will increase, making the party more vulnerable to pulls and pressures. The NCP, which was the target of much IPL-related mud-slinging, is looking to get back at its senior partner.

To be sure, the Congress' opponents are in far worse shape. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance has been haemorrhaging so much, there is little left of it. The BJP has currently only three allies: the Shiv Sena, the Akali Dal and the Janata Dal (U). The Left has a tough election to fight in West Bengal while the other parties are scattered. More importantly, there is simply no one around who has the energy to fight a general election so soon after the last one. All of which suggests that UPA-II will have near fatal accidents, die many deaths, and yet survive for some time to come because of the sorrier state of its opponents.

Correction and Clarification

The first paragraph of the above said ". However as the division of votes showed - 289 for and 201 against - the challenge really did not stretch the government." A few readers said that the voting was on the cut motions proposed by the Opposition, so the final figures were 289 against (the cut motions) and 216 for (in favour of) the cut motions, and not the other way round, as stated.

The writer clarifies: The numbers were used in the sense of 289 for the government and 201 against. Had it been put the other way - 289 against and 201 for - the assertion that the government was not stretched by the challenge would not have sounded credible. Even before this article, the numbers have been used the same way as given in the piece. The confusion probably arose because the article did not explicitly say "for the government."

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