Saturday, July 08, 2006

Mr Bechara

Being an inherently inexact science, politics rarely allows its practitioners the luxury of identifying an inflexion point. By its standards then, Thursday, July 6, must have been an astonishing aberration - it was the day when the authority of the Manmohan Singh Government slipped below critical point.

Why did the DMK's successful attempt at blackmail - "Drop disinvestment plans for Neyveli Lignite or we withdraw from the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)" - end up giving India its first significant lame duck prime ministry since IK Gujral assumed office in April 1997?

The reasons had nothing to do with the proposal to sell 10 percent of Union government equity in a coal company located near the Tamil city of Cuddalore; indeed, they had little to do with economics. Manmohan Singh found himself in a chakravyuh designed by successive circles of political intrigue.

Till this past week, Manmohan was being attacked and assailed either by his own Congress colleagues - HRD Minister Arjun Singh took unilateralist postures on OBC quotas; Water Resources Minister Saifuddin Soz sought to shut-down the Narmada project; Home Minister Shivraj Patil kept the Prime Minister "in the dark" over the swearing-in of a minority JMM government in Jharkhand in 2005 - or was being called names by the Communists.

In recent days, there has been a shift in the nature of defiance. Junior allies have started taking liberties with prime ministerial privilege, and have begun testing the backbone of the Congress.

An early indicator came in June, when Sharad Pawar, Agriculture Minister and NCP chief, backed Rahul Bajaj's candidature for a Rajya Sabha by-election in Maharashtra. He joined hands with the Shiv Sena and the BJP, against a Congress nominee. Then came the Dravida double whammy.

Two messages in Tamil

In July, Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss - from the OBC-backed PMK in Tamil Nadu - sought to sack cardiac surgeon P Venugopal as director of the Delhi-based All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). The Prime Minister could do little as Venugopal was first turfed out by a single-minded minister and then reinstated (for the moment) by the Delhi High Court.

Usually silencer-challenged, Congress spokesman Rajeev Shukla insisted the party had no position on the issue, it being a matter exclusively between the Health Ministry and AIIMS. He may as well have said that allied ministers were a law unto themselves, empowered by the political equivalent of Article 370.

AIIMS is, of course, a Delhi institution, more than, frankly, an everyday presence in the lives of people across the country. Yet this is the first port of call of ministers, politicians, VIPs, SIPs (self-important persons) when they take ill. As such it is the type of Capital showpiece that has traditionally been the national party's preserve in a coalition government.

Regional parties have usually left these symbolic power or patronage centres alone. For instance, the JD(U) was obsessed with Bihar when it was part of the NDA government, but had no strong views on, say, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. Likewise, the Telugu Desam wasn't interested in who the BJP appointed to the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.

The writ of the national party was allowed to run in "national institutions" in the Capital. Ramadoss ended this compact by making AIIMS his playground, by keeping the Congress out of the loop and by allowing his party back home to proclaim it had sidelined a Brahmin medico-administrator.

The DMK responded with even bigger theatre. Environment Minister A Raja and Telecom Minister Dayanidhi Maran, had been part of a cabinet meeting that had discussed the 10 percent divestment in Neyveli Lignite but now reneged.

Urged on by their party leader, Chief Minister M Karunanidhi in Chennai, they asked the Prime Minister to revoke the decision, refused compromise talks with Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Finance Minister P Chidambaram. In a matter of hours, Manmohan rolled over and rolled back - not just Neyveli but also all disinvestment was off.

Politically, it sent out a clear and sharp signal: this Prime Minister and his party were very, very vulnerable to threat and coercion. The Congress showed no stomach. As such, the Government had compromised its capacity to take not just hard decisions, but any sort of enlightened decision. It was now, as the BJP put it, "a Congress-led Third Front Government".

The perfect zero

While Terrible Thursday may mark a turning point for the Manmohan interlude in Indian history, the Prime Minister's functional autonomy was actually eroded step by step, month by month. Today, the UPA arrangement that Manmohan nominally presides over is a sum of just so many competing interests that cancel each other that; on crucial issues of public policy, it simply can't move.

Begin with economic reforms, already being spoken of in the past tense. The Prime Minister and his finance minister could never privatise, and can now not even divest. FDI (in areas such as retail) has been effectively blocked, labour laws remain irredeemable. In the Union government, the Left view is now more accepted than at any time since 1991.

This regime has been accompanied by manic public spending in populist schemes such as the Rural Employment Guarantee Programme, part of the "leakages" from which will probably fund Congress election campaigns. Chidambaram needs money for all this. Without divestment, all he can do is raise taxes, an inevitability in the 2007-08 budget, as things stand.

What will that do to business sentiment? India will still grow at 6.5-7.5 percent - which has become a low-hanging fruit - but consistent 10-12 percent GDP growth, which would pose a genuine challenge to China, will be a future government's burden. This one's given up the fight.

Move to foreign policy, which doesn't usually affect domestic discourse but, in Manmohan's case, has. The Prime Minister's legacy will be shaped by the nuclear deal with the United States, an agreement entirely in India's interest but scarcely an election winner. On its part, the Congress appears almost embarrassed by the deal, unwilling to take political ownership so as not to end up applauding an accidental, "non-Dynasty" prime minister, and unsure how sections of Muslim society will react.

On America and in opposing Iran's nuclear weapons programme, Manmohan did the correct thing for the nation. Yet it is important to recognise he has expended his anyway limited political capital on ventures that will not, in the end, win him votes, and have left him susceptible to the Muslim-Left. The Congress' instinct will be to "make up" with desperate actions - alienating Israel, declaring undying love for Palestinian lost causes, coming up with one giveaway after the other to "appease" minorities, especially as the Uttar Pradesh elections draw close.

What this also means is that the Government's ability to take a tough line on jihadi terrorism - in Jammu and Kashmir, of course, but increasingly outside too, from Bangalore to Ayodhya - will be curtailed. The fiction that no Indians outside Kashmir have been indoctrinated or incorporated into "sleeper cells" will be maintained.

On the Maoist challenge, Nepal policy was, of course, outsourced to the CPI(M) and has produced a model that Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury will want replicated in India's "Naxalite corridor". In the best case scenario, this will mean limited police action. The worst case is too worrying to imagine.

So where does that leave Manmohan after the nuclear deal is signed and delivered, and the Nuclear Suppliers' Group assuaged? What is his utility to his party?

Multiple affront, Third Front

As the Cripple Manmohan Programme gathers steam, two questions emerge. One, is Manmohan going to last as prime minister? Two, is another election going to come before 2009? In Delhi, the tea leaves are being studied carefully.

On the morning of Friday, July 7, when the Prime Minister rushed out of a meeting with the cabinet secretary and drove in the direction of 10 Janpath, the rumour began that he was resigning. The Sensex fell, and it took a statement from the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) to quieten the buzz.

Nevertheless, sources in both the Congress and the PMO admit relations between Manmohan and his party are at a low. "Take the case of Neyveli Lignite," says one observer, "the DMK asked for one company's divestment to be put off, the Prime Minister announced a moratorium on all divestment. Why?" The implication was that he had reached out to his party leadership for support, been rebuffed and reacted in pique.

In the Congress itself, alternative names are doing the rounds in case Manmohan is to be made the fall guy. Pranab Mukherjee is seen as a front-runner, but if the accent is still on lightweights, AK Antony and Sushil Shinde, who has the additional advantage of being a Dalit, are also being spoken of.

The prospect of a mid-term election is tricky to speculate upon. There is a creeping realisation that the Congress will end up carrying the can for the UPA's shortcomings. Take the recent spurt in food prices. Sharad Pawar has been conveniently out of the country and out of the public gaze, while the Congress takes the flak, blames the NDA and privately tells its spokespersons not to attack the Agriculture Minister because he is an ally. "I'm getting very mixed signals from the party," complains a Congress office bearer.

The Congress is doing its utmost to insulate itself from its own Government. The Left is quite obviously working on discrediting the Congress and on a Third Front arrangement that, after a future election, it can micro-manage. Pawar may be looking to present himself as a non-Congress, non-Left elder statesman, "a sort of latter-day Atal Bihari Vajpayee", as one senior politician puts it, who could become prime minister in an NDA type of coalition.

In this situation - "with the Congress and CPI(M) competing for opposition space", as one bureaucrat describes it - guessing time-tables and government longevities is like negotiating a minefield. The hidden explosives are for Manmohan Singh to find.

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