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Bill Battles

The new quota wars

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EYES ON CHAIRS Scuffles in Parliament over the promotions quota Bill, which will probably end up in cold storage, are mostly about parties eyeing potential alignments for 2014

The row over the promotions quota Bill is not just about caste equations in UP. It turns the spotlight on the Cong-SP-BSP alliance that is helping keep the Manmohan government in power. For the BJP, the battle to wean them away is proving to be an uphill one.

For a few moments last week, Parliament's staid House of Elders resembled UP's raucous assembly as MPs of Mulayam Singh's Samajwadi Party and Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party came to blows inside the Rajya Sabha. It happened when SP's Naresh Agarwal started advancing into the well of the House to stop the tabling of a contentious constitutional amendment that will pave the way for SC/ST quotas in government job promotions. BSP's Avtar Singh moved to block his way and a scuffle ensued, invoking flashes of innumerable such scenes in Lucknow where MLAs of the two warring parties regularly brawl and scrap.

It was an ignominious finale to a session already disgraced by daily disruptions over Coalgate. But it brought the spotlight back on the unholy Congress-SP-BSP alliance that has kept the beleaguered Manmohan Singh government afloat through its trials and tribulations of the past two years, frustrated the BJP's efforts to notch up numbers for an anti-Congress front, and staved off the threat of a mid-term poll.

Parliament's main business is to make laws, debate policy and keep tabs on government functioning. But it is also a stage on which political processes unfold and battlelines are drawn for future elections. The fracas over the quota Bill was more than a row over another controversial piece of legislation that seems set to meet the same fate as the Lokpal Bill (which has been pending for over four decades) or the women's reservation Bill (which also provoked pandemonium in its time and is yet to be passed). It reaffirmed the status quo in the current Lok Sabha and served as a stark reminder to the opposition that the political equations sustaining UPA 2 are not going to change in a hurry, despite the BJP's high-pitched campaign to isolate the Congress on the issue of corruption and create an inexorable momentum for early polls.

A HOUSE DIVIDED


If nothing else, the quota wrangle managed to deflate the Coalgate balloon. When the curtain came down on the monsoon session, there was more chatter about Mayawati, Mulayam and reservations than about the BJP, Congress and questionable coal block allocations. In the dying hours of a session that has been dominated by the BJP, it was the SP and BSP who took centre-stage. The heat was off the Congress, at least temporarily.

The BJP's chagrin was evident in the shrill protests from its leaders and MPs like Ravi Shankar Prasad and Chandan Mitra who were all over television accusing the Congress of "stage managing" the melee. They said the government deliberately introduced a Bill it knew would arouse strong emotions from the two UP parties so that their battle would divert attention from Coalgate. "( The scuffle) is exactly what the government wanted to happen, " Mitra told a TV channel.

These may be over-the-top allegations. But it was certainly not the first time that the SP and BSP have bailed the government out of a sticky situation. They may be bitter rivals in UP but they become comrades-in-arms in Delhi whenever necessary. The triangular relationship between the odd threesome of Indian politics was cemented during the 2010 budget session when the BJP and the Left ganged up to rock the government with cut motions that could have imperilled its survival. The SP and BSP joined hands to save the day for UPA 2.

Both came to the rescue of the Congress again during the recent elections for president and vice president. Despite overtures from the BJP, which was desperate to stitch together an opposition alliance against the Congress, Mulayam and Mayawati offered their support to the two UPA candidates, resulting in crushing defeat for the nominees of the BJP.

THE TIES THAT GRIND


It is rare for bitter rivals like the SP and BSP, who see each other more as enemies than political competitors, to come together on the same platform in support of the same party. But power is a strong magnet and as long as the Congress holds the reins of government in Delhi, both see advantages in maintaining a cordial, supportive relationship with the ruling dispensation. It not only keeps the CBI off their backs in the various cases pending against them, it also serves to protect them in their battle in UP, where their rivalry often turns vicious and ugly.

The Congress-SP-BSP triangle is the secret of the Manmohan Singh government's survival. It has frozen the political chessboard for the duration of the current Lok Sabha's term, which is why talk of a mid-term poll remains idle speculation. "Even if we want to bring down the government, we know that we can't as long as the Congress has the support of the SP and the BSP, " admits a BJP leader who did not want to be named. The two UP parties have roughly the same number of MPs in the Lok Sabha (the SP has 24 and the BSP has 21) and can be called upon to replace recalcitrant allies in the UPA, like Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress, or buffer numbers for the government in Parliament when needed.

Interestingly, neither party sees any contradiction between its politics in the state and its politics at the centre. Caste configurations in UP are well defined. Mayawati is the custodian of the dalit vote while Mulayam holds the OBC vote and a chunk of the Muslim vote. The Congress is seen as a marginal player in this battle of the castes and has ceased to matter, which is why both parties willingly sent letters of support to the UPA in 2004 as well as 2009. The squabble over the quota Bill came in handy for the two UP parties to consolidate their respective caste constituencies.

But the battle to wean them away from the Congress is on. After being outwitted, momentarily at least, by the quota manoeuvre, the BJP has upped the ante on Coalgate, taking the fight directly to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's door again. According to an NDA leader who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the BJP hopes to turn corruption into an issue on the streets and revive a "Bofors-like' ' atmosphere in the country to build pressure on Congress allies and supporters to take a stand and make a choice. Prasad hinted at this when he urged Mayawati to be with the BJP "at least once" on the fight against corruption.

The quota fracas showed that it will take more than talkathons on television or mere moral pressure to sway the two UP parties. Both Mulayam and Mayawati are hard-nosed leaders who know which side their bread is buttered. The BJP has little to offer them in UP. It has a slice of upper caste and urban middle class votes but these groups have an inherent antipathy to the dalits and OBCs. More importantly, there is a heavy price to pay with UP's large Muslim vote for any dalliance with the BJP. Mulayam realised this to his detriment when he aligned with former BJP chief minister Kalyan Singh in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls.
It is ironic that UP's complex caste equations should sustain the Congress at the centre even as they befuddle the party in the state itself. Which is why even as the BJP huffs and puffs at the government in "ek dhakka aur do' ' desperation, the house that the Congress built is still standing.

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