United progressive dalliance-II

UPA II Troubled by partners, the government is hobbled as the lame National Front govt

United progressive dalliance-II

The acrimonious debate on the Lokpal and Lokayukta Bill in the Rajya Sabha on the night of December 31, 2011 mirrored the tumultous relations between the Congress party and its coalition partners in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA).

Be it the Trinamool Congress (TMC) of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, or the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) led by M Karunanidhi, and to a lesser extent the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) of Union Minister Sharad Pawar, it was never smooth sailing for the largest partner in the ruling UPA at the Centre ever since the coalition came to power in 2009.

Lack of consultation and co-ordination, charges of being taken for granted by the smaller allies, humiliation for the government of being forced to stall key policy decisions and Bills in Parliament, have all exposed everything that is wrong with the coalition and the way it is run.

In 2004, when UPA-I came into existence, there was structured exchange of views at a co-ordination committee formed under a common minimum programme. Hence, few would have expected the rumblings that UPA-II has been experiencing. The long diatribes among the partners, the mutual distrust and refusal to form a consultation mechanism, have all reduced UPA-II to a rickety coalition, two of whose leading partners – Congress and TMC - are seen as being out to demolish each other in West Bengal.

Lack of cohesion may threaten the very existence of the coalition, and with that the Union government, although  seasoned politicians will obviously try to prevent such a situation from arising. Yet, the way some issues were handled in the last few months has led to a feeling that unless key elements to successful functioning of an alliance are addressed, the coalition could well be walking on thin ice.

UPA II has always been a wobbly coalition. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wanted two leaders of ally DMK – A Raja and T R Baalu – to be kept out of the government and succeeded with one. Next came the Land acquisition bill, which Mamata opposed and it was its shelved.

The 2G investigations almost ended the tie-up between Congress and DMK as not just the name of Raja but also that of Kanimozhi, Karunanidhi’s daughter, cropped up. The DMK patriarch tried his best to ensure that his daughter was not jailed but with the matter reaching the courts, the government was helpless.

Congress then ran into problems with both TMC and DMK over seat sharing for the Assembly polls in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal.

The TMC took over completely after that. Mamata successfully stalled hike in petrol prices during WB elections and even after that. The differences showed signs of escalation when she refused to board the Prime Minister’s plane to Dhaka over the Teesta water sharing issue. This was followed by her refusal to approve the Pension Bill, FDI in ulti-brand retail and Lokayukta being part of the Lokpal Bill. The first two got stuck even while the government was struggling to fend off charges of a policy paralysis. The latest test of the coalition’s patience was the NCP’s threat to go it alone in the civic polls if it did not get its due seat share.

The regularity with which differences are cropping up has given rise to a feeling that the Congress party managers have failed the allies. Lead partner Congress seems to be suffering from a lack of direction from the top, a phenomenon that has put the party and government to embarrassment ever since UPA chairperson and Congress president Sonia Gandhi went abroad for surgery. Even after her return, issues have been left hanging and are addressed only when there is a crisis.

A possible remedy could have been a co-ordination committee, which the Left parties extending outside support to UPA-I and the Congress successfully managed. CPI leader D Raja told Deccan Herald: “The biggest weakness of this coalition is the lack of a co-ordination committee and a Common Minimum Programme. Nobody knows how and why allies joined Congress to form the government with neither of these. Without them, the coalition is bound to fail.”

Cong defence

Congress spokesman and Lok Sabha MP Manish Tewari, however, differed: “Coordination committee is the symptom rather than the cause. If you say by having such a structure the differences will disappear, it is a very simplistic way of looking at things. All these parties are represented on the cabinet. The UPA manifests itself as an alliance only in the government.”

Of the two other allies, DMK agrees with Tewari while NCP does not. Said DMK Lok Sabha MP T K S Elangovan:  “ There is no point in having a CMP or committee now but consultations are a must.” However, Tariq Ahmed, NCP general secretary and Rajya Sabha MP disagreed: “in a coalition government, these types of problems are bound to be there. There should be proper coordination. In UPA-II such a committee is lacking.”

Tempermental Mamata has been a hard nut to crack for the UPA government in recent months. But then, observers say there is a method to her tantrums. First, despite having won a resounding victory, the lady in white does not want to yield an inch to the Left, whose 33-year regime she dethroned last year, so that she can be more Left than the Left parties. Second, she has no obligation towards the Congress – she does not depend on  Congress support in WB, rather Congress is at her mercy at the Centre. Third, with the ‘honeymoon period’ still on, she hopes to win, in the event of a mid-term election, more number of Lok Sabha seats than the19 she has now, which may make her a major player at the Centre.

Asked about the issue of alliance, TMC’s Rajya Sabha MP Derek O’Brien made some candid observations: “Mamata’s destiny is shaped by none but the people for whom she fought and won a long struggle against three decades of Communist misrule.”

Questioned about alliance at the Centre, he said: “Our focus is on providing good governance in West Bengal. Our 25 MPs too have a clear vision: good deeds for the less fortunate. Everything and everyone else is secondary…For long years, the Congress in WB had cozied up to the Communists. We would appreciate if these old habits change for the better…Rather than making pious statements to the media on coalition dharma, it would be better if they put their words into practice and communicate with partners directly.”

After two-and-a-half-years at the helm in its second innings, it has become imperative for the Congress to put the coalition house in order if it wishes to complete its term.

Related Stories:

Congress, allies and coalition drama

‘UPA’s fall will be due to its own contradictions’

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