Costs of realpolitik

There is no point in speculating about whether the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance regime will survive this evening’s vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha. Whether it does or does not will, arguably, make a difference. For one thing, it will have a direct bearing on whether the India-United States nuclear deal will be put through the next two stages — approval of the ‘India-specific’ safeguards agreement by the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and an exemption from the Nuclear Suppliers Group — in time for the U.S. Congress to possibly fit it into its agenda and vote on it ahead of the November 4 election of President George Bush’s successor. As the whole world knows, the current political crisis revolves round the Manmohan Singh government’s decision to go ahead with operationalising this deal. This has been a political coup of sorts. It has involved the Congress party breaking with the Left, the third largest political grouping in the 14th Lok Sabha, which kept the minority government afloat for four-fifths of its elected term, and aligning itself with the fourth largest grouping, the Samajwadi Party, an ex-adversary. Nobody can claim with a straight face that the confidence vote will be exclusively or even predominantly on the merits of the nuclear deal. Nevertheless, the occasion has produced a fairly good debate on its import.

The widespread political impression is that the outcome of the confidence vote will not materially affect the big stakes — the 15th general election, which is due by April-May 2009. Over the past year and more, the party ruling at the Centre has met with a string of Assembly election defeats. Its nervousness over what lies ahead will be heightened by the fact that this is a time of double-digit inflation and intense mass hardship caused by the steep rise in the prices of essential commodities. Half a dozen States are due to have Assembly elections in the remaining part of 2008. In this context, it is unlikely to matter a great deal whether the run-up to the general election will be a full eight months or half of that. Among other things, political drama has seen the Bahujan Samaj Party supremo and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Mayawati, emerge as a central player on the national political stage. For the Congress, the cost of this exercise in realpolitik has been surreally high and could climb further. For the people of India, the recent goings-on — the kaleidoscopic shifts in loyalties among political groupings as well as individual MPs, the naked betrayals of trust, the bribes and inducements alleged and widely reported in the media, and the effects of corporate feuds imported into the political arena — raise the question whether the vote of confidence has not already become a confidence trick.

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