Planning for power

Published : Aug 01, 2008 00:00 IST

The Congress seems to have sensed the shape of things to come and chalked out its road map well in advance.

in New Delhi

In the process of negotiating the India-U.S. nuclear deal, the Congress has rewritten the agenda for political debate in the country. Ten days before the vote of confidence, the partys top leadership appeared confident that an issue of national interest like this would get it enough support in Parliament. And even if it failed to win the trust vote, the leaders felt, the party had no reason to be apologetic about its action because it was well-intentioned. Senior Congress leaders were in fact happy that the deal gave them a respectable separation plan with regard to the Left parties, which, they admitted, had to happen on some issue or the other.

The upside of the Congress-Left wrangling has been that the Indian polity, for long overshadowed by the Mandal-Masjid brand of politics, has taken a U-turn and a non-emotive, development-related issue like the India-U.S. nuclear deal has occupied centre stage. Whether the government wins the trust vote or not, Congress strategists are happy that they have set the agenda for a political debate and that it is not about a communal or casteist issue but about bijli, sadak, paani (electricity, roads, water).

We are only trying to provide bijli for our future generations. Only if there is power, there can be development. Why should anyone object to that? asked senior Congress leader Digvijay Singh. This new-found confidence about an issue, which until a few days ago was greeted with scepticism as not being of much electoral value, was reflected in party general secretary Rahul Gandhis remark at the Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting on July 11 that there was no need to be apologetic about the deal. Armed with the endorsement by the partys highest decision-making body to go ahead with the nuclear deal and the full backing of its allies, the Congress is planning to go to the masses and explain it in simple terms, shorn of all jargon.

People need electricity. Farmers need electricity to irrigate their farms; industries need electricity to increase production; households need electricity for their daily activities. They will understand if we explain to them that the deal is all about electricity without making any compromises with the national interest, said M. Veerappa Moily, Congress general secretary and chief of the partys media department.

The thinking in the Congress is to present the issue in such a manner as to make it acceptable electorally. This was evident from the fact that a meeting of the future challenges committee, attended by Rahul Gandhi, was sandwiched between meetings of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the CWC to discuss ways to face the trust vote. Moily singled out Rahul Gandhi for participating actively in the CWC deliberations and for expressing his support and solidarity with the Prime Minister on the deal. Apparently, Rahul Gandhi has emerged as the key campaigner for the Congress and is widely presumed to be its prime ministerial candidate.

Even as deliberations are on to make the nuclear deal into a productive issue electorally, the Congress is leaving nothing to chance regarding the trust vote. On the face of it, the government seems to have the numbers. Senior Congress leader and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Vayalar Ravi said it had the support of 280 Members of Parliament. Besides the members of the UPA, this includes the 39 members of the Samajwadi Party, three each of the Ajit Singh-led Rashtriya Lok Dal and the H.D. Deve Gowda-led Janata Dal (Secular) and two independents.

But if this calculation goes wrong, say if the Samajwadi Party MPs rebel (three of them have said as much), then the government might just fall short of the required number. The defeat of the 13-month-old Vajpayee government on the floor of the House in 1999 by just one vote, because Mayawati ditched him at the last moment, is still vivid in everyones memory. In order to prevent a repeat of that, Congress and UPA leaders individually have been entrusted with wooing prospective supporters. Thus, Ghulam Nabi Azad is in consultation with independents, Lalu Prasad with the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, Pranab Mukherjee with Mamata Banerjees Trinamool Congress and Mani Shankar Aiyer with MPs from the north-eastern region.

The intense lobbying notwithstanding, Congress leaders betray signs of nervousness. It is not like going to a bakery and asking for bread. In politics you cant be sure of always getting what you ask for. It is fifty-fifty, said one of them about the chances of the government surviving the trust vote. A bitter verbal duel with the Left is bound to follow. Despite Congress president Sonia Gandhi thanking the Left parties for their support to the UPA in the past, a few Congress leaders are not making a secret of their animosity towards the Left, especially those who have been sceptical of its support from the beginning. Kapil Sibal, Minister for Science and Technology, said the Left parties had no business to comment on how the government should proceed on the nuclear deal because after the withdrawal of support we are not bound by them.

As for the Lefts criticism of the government hiding the safeguards agreement draft and releasing it at midnight, Sibal said it was unfortunate that the Left leaders were spreading canards without being responsible enough to verify facts. Rebutting every single point raised by Prakash Karat, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Sibal said that at no point of time had the Left parties insisted on seeing the draft. Besides, he said, Karat himself had said during the meetings earlier that he had no interest in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) agreement and that his objection was only to the 123 Agreement.

Sibal said the Lefts opposition to the government was on ideological grounds as it did not want India to have anything to do with the U.S. But we are committed to a cause that is good for the country. The India-U.S. nuclear deal is in the national interest. The Left casting aspersions on our intentions is unfortunate, he said.

Congress leaders know that the situation requires careful handling. This realisation forced them to grab the Samajwadi Partys offer of support, which would have been unthinkable until a few months ago. Not too long ago, during the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, Rahul Gandhi campaigned incessantly against the Mulayam Singh Yadav government. The verbal battle between the two benefited Mayawati to a great extent.

Realisation has now dawned on both sides that if they continued to fight each other in Uttar Pradesh, the Bahujan Samaj Party would sweep the next Lok Sabha elections there. But if we join hands with Mulayam Singh, Muslims, who are looking for a way out of the BSP, will shift back to the S.P. and the Congress, and this will have a trickle-down effect outside Uttar Pradesh, too, said a senior Congress leader from the State.

But will this equation work, given the history of bitterness between the leaders in the State? The Congress seems to have a plan ready. We have sidelined those opposed to the alliance. The coming together of the Congress and the S.P. is certainly not for this specific issue only, it will pave the way for future alliances, said the senior leader, adding that the way the Samajwadi Party justified its support for the deal was commendable.

It is clear that the Congress was not taken totally unawares by the turn of events. It had, in fact, done a lot of homework anticipating the Lefts withdrawal and it is now about to use this issue as a launching pad for the road ahead, as Sonia Gandhi put it.

A senior Congress leader said the party would try to hammer in that it was Manmohan Singh who steered the economic policies in the 1990s to bring Indias growth rate to a respectable point and hence his advocacy of a particular course of action cannot be questioned on account of intentions at least. His personal credibility is impeccable and if he believes that this deal is good for the nation, then we believe him and we will make the people also believe him, the leader said.

Only time only will tell whether people will actually accept it, but the Congress seems to have chalked out its future road map with precision.

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