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Political avalanche

Shaken not stirred

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TIGHTROPE PACK: Mulayam Singh Yadav's 22 and Mayawati's 21 Lok Sabha MPs are crucial for the UPA to stay in power at the Centre

DMK's exit and SP's threat to follow suit could have seriously upset the numbers for the UPA in the Lok Sabha. But the party is still blustering with confidence because its other allies are not keen on early polls.

The most telling evidence of the Manmohan Singh government's vulnerability following the DMK's abrupt withdrawal of support was Congress president Sonia Gandhi's desperate overture to Samajwadi Party boss Mulayam Singh Yadav. Right there, on the floor of the Lok Sabha after it had adjourned, in front of a host of surprised MPs, she walked up to the man who holds the key to the government's survival and with folded hands begged for forgiveness on behalf of union steel minister Beni Prasad Verma. Dissociating herself and the Congress from Verma's insinuation that SP's support to UPA 2 was a mercenary transaction, Sonia is believed to have said, "I personally apologise. "

The wheel has come full circle for the Congress. When the Left pulled out of UPA 1 in 2008 in protest against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's decision to go ahead with the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal, it was the Samajwadi Party that came to its rescue. The government sailed through a trust vote in Parliament that year with Mulayam Singh's help and completed its term, defying predictions by the prophets of doom. The icing on the cake was that the Congress went on to win the 2009 polls handsomely, increasing its tally in the Lok Sabha by more than 60 seats.

Five years later, the DMK has rocked the UPA's boat, ironically also on foreign policy. This time too, the government's survival for the next one year, till the 2014 polls, is dependent on the SP. But there is a difference. Unlike 2007, the numbers are much more fragile. And the Congress not only has to placate one difficult ally in Mulayam Singh, it also has to manage another, the BSP's Mayawati, whose 21 Lok Sabha MPs are vital to keep the government afloat.

On the face of it, it's a recipe for disaster. The pundits are already predicting the fall of the government sooner than later and a general election by the end of the year. So what gives Congress managers the confidence to bluster that the government is neither lame, nor ducking?

The bottom line of the crisis engulfing the government is that except for Jayalalithaa's AIADMK, no party wants an early poll. Even Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee seems to have lost her appetite for a 2013 election, perhaps because she is slipping in middle Bengal and she faces an important test later this year in the panchayat polls. The manner in which she readily responded to a Congress plea for support on the Sri Lanka issue is an indication that she may have decided to go slow for the moment.

Consider the compulsions of different political formations that could join hands to push through a no-confidence motion against a government that is teetering on the edge of collapse. The BJP continues to be plagued by internal leadership problems and is yet to evolve a consensus on Narendra Modi's claim to lead the party into the next general election. The Left is waiting for Mamata Banerjee to decline further in West Bengal in the hope that it remains the default option for a disenchanted electorate in the state.

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar wants time to weigh his options and decide whether he wants to continue his alliance with the BJP or go it alone in the next polls. Mulayam Singh Yadav is acutely aware that he is rapidly losing ground in UP, thanks a series of communal riots and deteriorating law and order. He wants time to reverse the trend. On the other hand, rival Mayawati hopes that time will see Mulayam's party slide further and the benefits will accrue to her as the natural party of alternate choice in UP.

The widespread reluctance for early elections gives the Congress a wide field in which to play. And it is playing with all the force at its command as a central government, using the carrot as well as the stick to make political parties fall in line. In a naked show of aggression, it sent the CBI to raid DMK chief M Karunanidhi's son Stalin. Simultaneously, rural development minister Jairam Ramesh opened the purse strings of his ministry to increase West Bengal's NREGA allocation, fully aware that this was irresistible bait for a chief minister facing panchayat polls in a few months.

Privately, most parties agree with what Nitish Kumar was frank enough to say publicly, that the Congress knows how to manage. And the dividends of its particular brand of venal politics are already accruing to the government. The DMK made it clear it has no intention of bringing a no confidence motion and will support the budget so that the government doesn't fall. The BJP is equally reluctant about moving a no confidence motion against the government.

The issue then is not survival because if Congress managers are skillful, the government can continue. The question really is whether this kind of daily operation to survive is doing the government's image and the Congress party any good. Clearly, it isn't. If the most powerful woman in the country has to fold her hands in an abject gesture before a maverick ally, it shows a desperation that doesn't augur well for the Congress in the run-up to the 2014 polls. If the government has to look over its shoulder every time it takes a decision, wondering which of the two 'Ms' it is annoying, it cannot but hamper its functioning. And if both party and government have to dig into their bag of dirty tricks to manage numbers in Parliament, it only reinforces an impression of venality.

A government spokesman boasted that decisions are being taken and reforms are on track. On the day the government was fighting for survival under the twin blasts from the DMK and SP, the Cabinet committee on investment cleared projects worth Rs 50, 000 crore. The news was buried by the political avalanche. It looks like the government will have to continue like this only.

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