Spell of Uncertainty

The debate on Budget in Parliament will decide the possibilities of power politics in the days to come

Sanjay Kapoor Delhi

“So here is the time-table” states a well informed Congress leader. “Parliament convenes again in late April and, after the debate on the Budget, the finance Bill is passed. Once that happens, the government will melt fast and elections could be held in October-November 2013.” This time-table is now under threat.

Sources in the government fear that the day of reckoning may come sooner as the Samajwadi Party (SP) could oppose the finance Bill, resulting in the UPA losing support in Parliament and jeopardising the passage of the finance Bill. It is a tricky scenario that is throwing up interesting possibilities. And many of them could be choreographed by the resident living atop Raisina Hill: President Pranab Mukherjee.

After the DMK withdrew support to the UPA government over its insistence that it backs the US-sponsored resolution against the genocide in Sri Lanka, there has been a reverse swing in politics in the capital. There are suggestions that the Congress’s discomfiture is aggravated by the attempts of a few business houses to bring down the UPA government at any cost. It is not that the UPA is anti-industry but, in recent months, regulatory bodies, courts and investigating agencies have been hurting the corporate sector.

The growing weakness of the central government has encouraged predatory tendencies in powerful business houses in the telecom and retail sector that are using small political parties to help meet their business objectives. Indeed, these are extremely tricky times.

The Congress, which is barely in majority, as it still enjoys support from Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav, is unsure about how its fortunes will play out during the last days of Parliament. Union Finance Minister P Chidambaram and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath may have exuded optimism about the prospects of the government to last a full term, but a more difficult reality stares at the party. The DMK chose to get out of the congress UPA fold after it realised that staying with the Congress government could hurt it electorally. All this while, it had been looking for a reason to part ways with an alliance that had only brought grief to its leader, M Karunanidhi, whose daughter, Kanimozhi, and a Dalit leader and former telecom minister, A Raja, had to spend time in jail over their involvement in the telecom scam.

Although the DMK is not enunciating its future strategy about how it hopes to contest the Lok Sabha elections, whenever they happen, this decision to step away from the UPA has left the Congress in tatters. If the Congress does not have a Dravidian partner then its chances of reaching double digits will be grievously hurt.

During the run-up to the elections, Rahul Gandhi had expressed an intention to revive the Congress in Tamil Nadu by trying to contest alone, but he was overruled. He was of the view that the people of the state were disgusted with Dravidian politics and were looking for an option, which the Congress could provide. This was in 2009. This time around, the Congress might be forced to contest elections without an ally — with, perhaps, disastrous consequences.

With most regional powerhouses abandoning the Congress, the party faces an uphill task minus these crucial allies that helped it through troubled waters in the last nine years of UPA rule. With the DMK pull out, the Congress will have to contest 39 seats alone in Tamil Nadu, while the prospects in Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal with 42 seats each aren’t comforting either. With UP being a two-way battle between the SP and the BSP, the Congress will have to fight hard for a share of the pie from the 80 Lok Sabha seats. Together, all these states account for 203 seats; this could be the crucial factor playing in the minds of Congress managers.

Moreover, the mass unpopularity of the central government could trigger the reordering of national politics. While many allies might leave to ensure that their prospects do not get hurt by reason of association, there are others that may dump their allies to seek a larger role in the alliance with a ‘weakened’ Congress. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s overtures to the Congress leadership and the latter’s positive response is a manifestation of how new alliances can be formed.

Nitish had made support to a political formation contingent on Bihar being declared a backward state. The UPA government seems to be responding favourably to this request. The moot question is, will Nitish, who has cruised to successive electoral victories due to his party’s alliance with the BJP, at all be keen to dump it for the next elections? Does it mean that he believes that the support of the minorities is critical for his victory and that it can get compromised if his ally, the BJP, pushes the candidature of Narendra Modi? To the credit of Nitish, he has consistently kept Modi away from Bihar since he believes that his muscular Hindutva profile can hurt him. Surely, he has proved to be an astute strategist who thinks that he can achieve a lot more by aligning with a weak Congress rather than a resurgent BJP.

A senior Congress leader confided to this correspondent sometime back that his party leadership would be happy to offer anything to Nitish. The test of this warmth would be proved on how Nitish’s party, the Janata Dal (United), responds to the finance Bill and the distress calls from the ruling party.

The Congress also hopes to patch up with estranged ally Mamata Banerjee during its last remaining days in power. Mamata had a messy divorce with the Congress when she withdrew support over the issue of FDI in multi-brand retail. Her detractors claim that her opposition to Walmart was prompted by some domestic retail lobbies. All that is now past. It is learnt that Manmohan Singh may respond positively to her demand for a financial package. In return, she may agree to endorse the Teesta river agreement with Bangladesh. Here again, these conciliatory gestures will be tested in Parliament during the Budget debate.

Much of what happens in Parliament will be determined by how political parties perceive the ground reality and whether an alliance will work to their advantage or not. The challenge for Sonia and Rahul is to ensure that the prospects of the party continue to look encouraging so that there is no exodus by those who believe that they might lose in the next Lok Sabha polls.

Recently, when Rahul met Congress MPs, he was told about the sorry state of affairs of the state units and why he needed to do something quickly. His response, sources claim, was that the Congress would win 40 seats from UP and MP, so, instead of whining, they should go back and work in their constituencies.

Although the MPs did not share Rahul’s optimism, they came back convinced that the young leader had something up his sleeve that could still get the party decent numbers in the next elections. Is it the unconditional cash transfer to voters before the polls, or something more?

The coming month will unfold much of what everyone has to offer. The moot point is, will it be a long spell of uncertainty, or a fleeting flash of hope?

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2013