OPINION

What’s in store now?

The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government came into existence in May 2004 following a major political upset — the surprise defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party and many of its allies in the 14th general election. For a little over four-fifths of a full term, the UPA has functioned as a minority government supported from outside by four Left parties with close to 60 Lok Sabha members. Unsurprisingly, there have been sharp policy differences between the ruling party and the Left on domestic as well as international, economic as well as political, issues. But the improbable government arrangement worked reasonably well as long as there was political goodwill, consultation, and a genuine effort to build common ground on issues of secularism and those related to the livelihood and democratic concerns of the people. With the government’s decision to go ahead with the operationalisation of the Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear deal and the inevitable withdrawal of support by the Left, a new and intriguing political situation is taking shape.

The key to this is the deal the Prime Minister and the Congress president have struck with a muscular adversary, the Samajwadi Party led by Mulayam Singh and Amar Singh and having a strength of 39 in the Lok Sabha. In fact, without the SP fielding a parliamentary strength way above what the ground situation in Mayawati-ruled Uttar Pradesh reflects today, there was no way the Congress-led regime could have planned to take its draft safeguards agreement to the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Among other things, this has meant breaking a written commitment to subject the “outcome” of the talks with the IAEA secretariat to the “findings” of the UPA-Left coordination committee that was set up to resolve the differences on the nuclear issues. According to press reports, the SP leaders have tried to leverage their support by pressing special interest demands such as the imposition of a windfall profit tax on oil companies (operating upstream and also downstream), a ban on the export of petroleum products, and a change in government policies on valuation of spectrum usage. Mr. Amar Singh has denied that he has raised these issues as “demands” on the government. The cost of the high-risk, potentially destabilising deal with the Samajwadi Party will be known as the intriguing situation develops. Facing a vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha — as demanded by both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Left — ahead of going to the IAEA Board in late-July is the constitutionally correct course. There has been speculation about a revolt brewing among a section of the Samajwadi Party MPs. Attempts to communalise stances on the nuclear issue are deplorable, but if there is any significant rupture in the SP ranks, the government’s survival strategy will collapse. Right now, Congress political managers are counting on Mr. Mulayam Singh and Mr. Amar Singh, in the company of some fence-sitting small parties and independents, to bale out the Manmohan Singh government. Assuming it survives the floor test, it will still be in for a politically turbulent period at a time of double-digit inflation that is climbing by the week.

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