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Which Singh was King?

Which Singh was King?

Author: Swapan Dasgupta
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: July 27, 2008

Last Tuesday, the Lok Sabha was adjourned shortly after 4 pm when three BJP members made their dramatic charge that the UPA Government had used cash to break the Opposition. Around 5.30 pm, when it was still unclear how the rest of the proceedings would be conducted, a senior BJP leader got an unusual message from a senior Cabinet Minister. Wouldn't it be better, the Minister asked, if the Opposition allowed the Government to win on the strength of a voice vote? In other words, wouldn't it be better for all concerned if a division (the parliamentary term for a head count) was averted?

There are two ways of viewing this proposal which may or may not have had the blessings of the top UPA leadership. First, it is entirely possible to view it as a cynical ploy to allow the Opposition to save face by not exposing the widespread defections from its ranks. At the same time, it would have given the Government a powerful handle to argue that the NDA was never serious about dislodging Manmohan Singh. In time, this theory would have been embellished to suggest that LK Advani was actually running scared of a resurgent Mayawati.

It is likely that the overture was made in the knowledge that some important BJP functionaries had consistently opposed the attempt to defeat the Government in the Trust vote. His ostensible argument was that it didn't help the party to have twin the Lok Sabha election with Assembly elections in five states, with Orissa and Andhra Pradesh possibly also joining in. The less charitable explanations included a single-minded determination to derail the Advani-for-PM campaign. After there was uproar over the purchase of MPs, the same lot pressed for an NDA walkout that would avert a floor test.

However, not everything in politics is centred on chicanery and duplicity. The overture to the BJP may well have had a less unwholesome rationale. The Congress, at the time the proposal was mooted, knew very well that the UPA was heading for a comfortable victory in the Lok Sabha. Indeed, had it not been for the fear of what the sting operation may have brought out, the UPA's margin of victory may well have been 25, not 19. At the same time, despite Pranab Mukherjee's statistical sophistry and claim that the UPA was never in minority, it was well know that the Government would win the trust vote on the strength of defections. While this may be a tribute to the crisis-management skills of the fixers and the profiling expertise of the Intelligence agencies, many in the Congress recognised the long-term political costs of being perceived as a party of the sleazy. The BJP may well have to ponder why so many of its legislators succumb to temptation, but the Congress has to consider the implications of being the fountainhead of corruption in the country.

Needless to say, the Cabinet Minister's noble attempt to prevent his own party from being tainted by disrepute and the Government's moral legitimacy being called into question, failed. The vote confirmed that the UPA had won on the strength of defections and the roll call of the treacherous showed that not even one of them was guided by any principled support to the nuclear agreement. In the time to come, the Prime Minister may well rue his assertion last Monday evening that there was no evidence of horse-trading. Like in the subterfuge over an Italian fugitive in the Bofors case, Manmohan Singh has developed the art of looking elsewhere when expedient. The Prime Minister was and is an accomplished survivor.

In line with the deep cynicism with which Indira Gandhi approached politics, the Congress believes that the voters love winners and don't give a damn about whether victory came through fairplay or match fixing. The "above politics" Prime Minister and heir-apparent will be flaunted to be the gold filling in a mouth of decay. This approach may succeed if the NDA campaign is undermined by its own fifth column. However, the future of governance in India is likely to be completely nightmarish.

Managing coalitions is daunting at the best of time. For four years, as long as the Left treated him like their "bonded slave", the UPA Government put economic reforms on hold and squandered the entire bequest of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Government.

However, in a perverse sort of way, the Left agenda was policy driven.

Apart from the Comrades in academia who fattened themselves on official patronage (and are, therefore, writing op-ed pieces denouncing Prakash Karat), the Left leaders didn't have personal agendas. They were guided by spurious economics, not lucrative commerce.

The same can hardly be said for those who helped save the day for the Government and now hope to maximise their gains in the next nine months.

Demands for modifications in the telecom policy, a windfall profit tax, the appointment of a malleable CBI director and the JMM-isation of Coal India have already been made.

In the next few days, there will be demands for, first, Cabinet berths followed by a new list of priorities that may well include the nationalisation of the Bellary mines, privileged treatment of select corporates, harassment of those who don't take the phone calls of the mighty and interference in the internal workings of the media.

Of course, the two pending pieces of economic legislation will also go through but more as a diversion.

In hindsight, last Tuesday's vote may prove very costly for both the UPA and India -- and not because of the nuke deal which is certain to be cloaked in associated disrepute.

"Singh is King", the gush-gush brigade sang after the infamous victory. It's a pity they didn't specify which Singh is King.

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