Three-handed Cut-throat: Congress, BJP and Left hold Cards Close to Chests!

The UPA coordination committee meeting last week went predictably. The Left as usual bared its fangs. It was willing to wound but afraid to strike. Absence of a joint statement at meeting's end signaled a new high in Leftist displeasure. A refusal to offer formal comment to media exposed its impotence. The Left holds the key to this government. Its political calculations need to be understood. They are transparent and consistent.

The Left supports this government despite grievances in order to block the BJP which it views as a greater evil. The Left has two views about a Third Front ' one short-term, the other long-term. In the short-term it would be willing to support a viable Third Front from outside on the basis of a common minimum programme as it does the Congress. In the long-term it could join a Third Front government provided there was a common comprehensive programme. In the event it would occupy the driver's seat. This is an understandable attitude for a party with national ambitions.

In last week's coordination committee meeting the Left presented a list of complaints to the government. It warned that unless provided satisfaction, it could upset the current arrangement. This does not necessarily imply toppling of government. More likely, it indicates future non-participation in UPA coordination committee meetings unless given satisfaction. The Congress will respond to complaints in the next UPA meeting, in July. The monsoon session will then be starting. Possibly the Election Commission's decisions on MPs occupying offices of profit would by then be known. The overall picture may be clearer for the Left to decide its next move.

It is unlikely that the Left's demands can be met under the present dispensation. Its views on both economic reforms and foreign policy seem incompatible with the views of the Prime Minister and of deputy chairman Planning Commission Mr. Montek Singh Ahluwalia. Therefore, guarantee of continued Left support seems unlikely if Dr. Manmohan Singh continues in office. That Mrs. Gandhi would replace the PM appears very unlikely. If the Congress remains adamant, what options would the Left have?

It is here that the short-term Third Front becomes relevant. There is no possibility of parties cobbling together a majority that excludes support from both the Congress and the BJP.  Also, there are certain allies that would stand firm with the Congress even if it relinquished power at the centre. Mr. Laloo Yadav's RJD and Mr. Karunanidhi's DMK come to mind. So might JMM stay put. For any feasible Third Front combine to emerge Mr. Mulayam Singh's party would be integral to the enterprise. That would most likely rule out participation by Miss Mayawati's BSP. To survive, therefore, a Third Front government would have to obtain support from both the BJP and the Left.

This seems impossible. But will it always remain impossible?

The BJP's master, the RSS, is leaving no stone unturned to make the Sangh Parivar more acceptable to secularists. First there was the private meeting of RSS Chief Mr. K Sudharshan with Mr. Mulayam Singh in his Lucknow office. Nothing tangible was disclosed about any outcome. Then Mr. Sudharshan praised Prophet Mohammed as well as Islam as a religion which, he reminded us, stood for peace. RSS contacts with certain Muslim organizations have also been reported. The RSS pulled up the BJP for protesting against the fuel price hike when it couldn't match the Congress by lowering the fuel sales tax in BJP-ruled states. And recently a senior RSS ideologue, Mr Vaidya, praised Mrs. Sonia Gandhi for the spirit of rectitude she displayed by resigning from Parliament and seeking re-election after the Office of Profit controversy arose. Last week Mr. Vaidya wrote in favor of retaining Article 370 for the Kashmir Valley. Clearly the RSS is sending a message to the Congress: Dump the Left and we will give support! The Congress is not likely to oblige. But if the Left remains stubborn, what then?

Meanwhile Congress ally and cabinet minister Mr. Sharad Pawar further muddied waters of the UPA. For the Rajya Sabha poll his party teamed up with BJP and Shiv Sena to elect industrialist Mr, Rahul Bajaj as an independent against the Congress candidate. According to the grapevine if Congress objections at the state level in Maharashtra compel Mr, Pawar to convert push into shove, he has tied up with BJP and Shiv Sena. Informed speculation says both parties would support Mr, Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party government from outside. This would allow Mr, Pawar, given the present norms of the UPA alliance, to continue as a cabinet minister in the centre.

If the present UPA arrangement does break down during the monsoon session of parliament, two alternative arrangements exist. First, the Congress and BJP can get together. All other parties would become irrelevant. The two together would make an absolute majority. Both parties pursue similar economic and foreign policies. On the communal issue the RSS seems to be bending over backward to woo the Congress.

The second possibility is that BJP and Shiv Sena with an issue-based approach give outside support to a Third Front government that replaces the UPA. Such a government would survive only if the Left also gave issue-based support to it from outside. This appears very unlikely. But if both the Left and BJP had no formal link with a minority Third Front government, that could save face all around. Such an arrangement has existed in the past during Mr. VP Singh's tenure as prime minister. Clearly such an arrangement would provide a temporary stop-gap before a mid-term poll late this year or early next year. In such an arrangement if the Left, BJP and Shiv Sena extended outside support the Third Front government would require less than seventy MPs to win a confidence vote. Minus Congress, RJD, DMK, BSP and JMM, around a hundred MPs might be persuaded. The sticking point would be of course an acceptable consensus prime Minister. At the moment there is none on the horizon.

This is where the political situation seems to stand at present. The UPA coalition rests on a very uneasy foundation. There is no obvious alternative in sight. The possible alternatives strain credulity. But given their track record, our political parties are capable of adopting impossible postures. Meanwhile, during last weekend Mrs. Gandhi visited Rae Bareili and lashed out against Mr. Mulayam Singh for denying her constituency electricity. The same day Mr. Karat was cozying up to Mr. Mulayam Singh in Lucknow coordinating a campaign against the price rise. So will UPA tensions subside? Will government be changed? Or will India get another mid-term poll?   


More by :  Dr. Rajinder Puri

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