After the vote

The better-than-expected margin of victory of the United Progressive Alliance regime on the Lok Sabha floor on Tuesday may have generated euphoria in the ranks of the ruling party. It certainly set off fireworks, won plaudits from industry bodies and other pro-reform quarters, sent the Sensex up by hundreds of points, and occasioned promises of faster-track economic liberalisation by Finance Minister P. Chidambaram. But the 275-256 win of the trust vote turned out to be a double-edged sword — with dramatic allegations of bribes-for-votes and live television images of wads of cash ambushing the debate on the nuclear deal as it neared its end, and spoiling the party for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the Congress, and its new-found allies. Prior to the vote, the air was thick with rumours of ‘horse trading’; reports of various dubious deals, including Ministerial berths for politicians with the most unsavoury reputations; and intimations of corporate feuds intruding into the political arena. But the prime time featuring of real money in the Lok Sabha drama, obliging the Speaker to promise some kind of investigation, opened up a serious credibility gap for Dr. Singh, who prides himself on his squeaky clean personal image, and Congress president Sonia Gandhi.

On paper, if one went by the formal decisions announced by the various parties, the government should have lost the vote of confidence by a margin of 16. Its 19-vote victory margin was a function of various motivating factors, including the effects of delimitation of Lok Sabha constituencies. It exposed weaknesses in the ranks of the opposition, especially the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies. It made up for the considerable erosion in the strength of the Samajwadi Party, its life-saving ally and the fourth-largest grouping in the 14th Lok Sabha, which faces an uncertain political future in Mayawati-dominated Uttar Pradesh. Of the major players in this Lok Sabha drama, only Chief Minister Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party and the Left parties, with their 59 MPs, voted their full, whip-bound strength. But the CPI(M) Polit Bureau’s expulsion of Somnath Chatterjee from party membership for “seriously compromising the position of the party” indicates that it sees the Speaker very much as its first Lok Sabha defector. Other than in the most superficial sense, it is too early to say who are the real winners and who the losers in this peculiarly Indian political drama. What lies ahead, during the run-up to the 15th general election, which is due in April-May 2009, will unfold painfully through the political campaigns, the realignments, the policy measures, the fierce polemics, and, with some luck, the pursuit of the truth behind the charges of vote-buying. That there is never a dull moment in Indian politics is a dictum that applies more than ever to the present.

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