Congress, allied to trouble
Some years ago, around half-way through the life of UPA I, I was on a flight with a very senior minister in the Cabinet. The talk turned to the Indo-US nuclear deal which the Prime Minister had just announced that he had secured from George Bush. Manmohan Singh regarded the deal as a huge achievement for India and prided himself on having wrested concessions from the Americans.
As it happened, my own views were mixed. I agreed with Manmohan Singh that the deal was a good thing. I agreed also that we needed to strengthen our ties with Washington if we were to take on the challenge of China in the 21st century.
But I also disagreed with him. I did not believe that the Americans were doing us a huge favour or that we had only a small window within which to conclude the deal. I thought the Americans were as keen on nuclear cooperation as we were. Nor did I agree with Manmohan Singh that the deal would transform India and lead to an inflow of billions of dollars in foreign investment.
And finally, I was not sure that the deal was worth risking the future of the UPA.
I said as much to the senior minister. I knew that the minister had been put in charge of speaking to the allies (the Left, in particular) to sew up the deal. And in public at least the minister had been strongly supportive of the nuclear deal.
So, I was a little surprised when he offered his own assessment of the situation. “The deal is a good one,” he said. “But Prakash Karat is right. And Manmohan is wrong.”
How could that be?
“In a coalition you must never assume that the largest party has a mandate,” he explained. “If the Congress had a mandate, then we would not be in a coalition. We would be part of a single-party government.”
I asked him to expand on that.
“A coalition is formed when nobody has a mandate. You sit with other parties and you work out a programme for action. When you want to deviate from that programme or you want to do something new, you first consult your allies. Our problem is that Manmohan thinks he has a mandate. In fact, he has none.”
I asked how this related to the Left and the nuclear deal. “I support the nuclear deal but I know that it is not part of our common minimum programme. Just because Manmohan wants it, that does not mean that Prakash also has to like it. In a coalition, or in a minority government, you cannot do anything unless all your allies like it. And the truth is that not only our allies, but even large sections of our own party, do not favour the nuclear deal. So, where is the mandate for it? If we had a Presidential system or if Manmohan had won the election like Indira Gandhi used to, then you could say that India elected him and his views are those that matter. But that is not the case.”
The minister in question is one of the wisest men in government. So, I pushed him further. Did he think that the Congress laboured too much under the misapprehension that the electorate had given it a mandate?
“When the BJP came to office,” he said, “they knew that they had no mandate. So, all the things that mattered to them like Ayodhya, Common Civil Code, special status for Kashmir, etc. were never pursued. They went by a programme that their allies had agreed to. Our problem is that the Congress is not used to allies. We think that the people only elect us and that we are doing a favour to the allies by giving them a chance to support us or to join our government.”
The minister is still around – if anything, he is even more influential – so I will not name him. But his words came back to haunt me as the drama over the Lokpal Bill unfolded.
Even a child could have seen what was at stake with this bill. Anna Hazare and his henchmen were blaming the Congress for stalling the bill. The BJP had no real affection for the bill but was eager to seem on Hazare’s side so that the Congress would stumble and fall. The only way the Congress could have tackled this crisis was by consulting with its allies and embarking on a carefully-planned course of action that allowed it to steer the bill through both Houses of Parliament. Plus, there were friendly parties who could have been counted on to abstain or to walk out so that the numbers worked in the government’s favour.
Instead, as we know now, the Congress couldn’t even get its own MPs together in the Lok Sabha, leading to the failure of the Constitutional Amendment. In the Rajya Sabha, it completely failed to anticipate Mamata Banerjee’s objections or to make the necessary deals with friendly parties. Worse still, it went into the House believing that it could still win the vote.
When the hollowness of its confidence was exposed, it behaved with an utter and complete lack of grace. There is no shame in losing a vote. Yes, it shows incompetence on your part to have strutted into the House without getting your support together. But a defeat in the Rajya Sabha is not a resignation issue or one that has long-term consequences.
So, at around 10.30 pm, when it became clear to the Congress that it could not get a majority for its bill, it should have behaved with grace and dignity. The Prime Minister should have stood up and told the House something like this, “We believe this is a good bill and the Lok Sabha which passed it two days ago agrees with us. But I can see that the BJP, the Left and other parties present in the House have differences with us. In the circumstances, we are going to withdraw this bill from the Rajya Sabha so that we can bring other political parties on board. We had promised the nation that we would introduce the bill in this session and we have kept our word. I am deeply sorry that our draft has not got the support we expected. But we will forge a consensus and our commitment to the Lokpal Bill remains undiminished. I assure you that it will be the first bill we will introduce in the next session.”
Would we have been disappointed? Probably. But I think we would also have given the government marks for trying and would have appreciated the Prime Minister’s sincerity.
But, of course, none of this happened. Manmohan Singh slouched silently in the first row. The minister for parliamentary affairs offered some lame excuse about running out of time. And the suspicion lingered that the Congress had been pleased to scurry out of the House under the cover of orchestrated chaos.
I thought back to my conversation with the senior minister. When the Congress could not persuade its allies to support the nuclear deal, it broke the UPA alliance and won a majority in the House by dubious means. This time around, it was caught unawares so I guess the buying of MPs was not possible. Instead, we had the graceless spectacle of chaos at midnight.
The problem as always is that this is a government in which the leading party deludes itself into believing it has a mandate. And when the allies refuse to go along with its whims, it responds with the worst kind of behaviour.
This was true of UPA I. And sadly, it is as true of UPA II.