Coalition pangs

Print edition : June 18, 2004

The Congress-led government begins its tenure with a lot of tension over allotment of portfolios to coalition partners.

WISH-LISTS are a compulsion of coalition politics and the partners in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) were out with theirs, seeking plum portfolios, the moment the Congress named the Prime Minister of the coalition government. Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Laloo Prasad Yadav wanted to be Deputy Prime Minister and take charge of the Home portfolio, while Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar decided on Defence for himself and Civil Aviation for his colleague Praful Patel. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) had its own list of Ministers and Ministries and Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) leader Ram Vilas Paswan was tracking Telecom or Railways.

Finance Minister P. Chidambaram.-R. RAGU

Unfortunately, in many cases their wish was not Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's command. After all, the Congress, as the senior partner in the alliance, had its own wish-list - Home, Defence, Finance, Commerce and Information and Broadcasting - on which it was unwilling to compromise. What followed was the compulsion of running an 18-party coalition government, as the Congress went about persuading and placating its allies. Laloo Prasad, who had joined forces with Sharad Pawar even as he battled Ram Vilas Paswan over the Railways portfolio, was perhaps the easiest to pacify. On May 20, he went away to Patna when it became clear that neither of his demands would be met and threatened to rethink about joining the government. But he returned to Delhi the next day and went into a huddle with Pawar on whether to support the government from inside or outside.

Subsequently, the two leaders announced their decision to join the government. Laloo Prasad, it was decided, would get Railways, besides other Ministries for his party colleagues, and Pawar would let go of Defence for two other Ministries - Agriculture and Food & Civil Supplies, Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution - and Civil Aviation for Praful Patel.

The loser, it turned out, was Paswan, the Dalit leader from the Dussad community that seemingly played a significant role in the victory of the RJD-Congress-LJP-NCP-CPI(M) alliance in Bihar. When it became clear that he would be getting neither Railways nor Telecom, his supporters took to the streets just hours before the swearing in on May 22, shouting slogans and blocking traffic. It took a phone call from Sonia Gandhi and the intervention of NCP leaders and former Prime Minister V.P. Singh to bring Paswan around. Finally, he had to settle for the Ministries of Steel and Chemicals & Fertilizers. As he went for the swearing in, he told waiting mediapersons that a portfolio could be an issue for "first-timers", not for him, an obvious reference to Laloo Prasad. He also emphasised that his alliance with the RJD was only for the Lok Sabha elections and not the Assembly elections in Bihar due next year.

Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee.-R.V. MOORTHY

There was trouble brewing in the South as well, with the DMK, which leads the Democratic People's Alliance in Tamil Nadu, putting its Ministers on hold. The DMK had maintained all along that it would watch the situation for a while before deciding on joining the government, but on May 19 DMK president M. Karunanidhi inked his approval after Sonia Gandhi met him in his hotel suite in Delhi. Only the previous evening Sonia had declined to accept the prime ministership and she sought the DMK's participation to strengthen the government. Seven Ministers from the party - three of Cabinet rank and the rest Ministers of State - came as a bonanza, but the mood changed once the portfolios were announced. The promised portfolios of Shipping, Personnel and Internal Security, and Finance with Revenue Department (for a Minister of State) had not been given to the DMK and Karunanidhi asked his Ministers not to take charge.

"Such things happen in a coalition government but the issue will be resolved soon," said Parliamentary Affairs Minister and Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad. While the issue was eventually resolved to the DMK's satisfaction, it raised questions about the Congress' attitude towards its coalition partners. Speaking to reporters in Chennai, Karunanidhi absolved Sonia Gandhi of any role in the mess-up, but held a "coterie" around her and the Prime Minister responsible for the confusion. He produced a letter signed by him and Congress leader N. Janardhana Reddy, which clearly mentioned that among the three Cabinet Ministers of the DMK, T.R. Baalu would hold the Surface Transport portfolio with Highways and Shipping departments, Dayanidhi Maran would hold Communications and Information Technology and A. Raja Environment and Forests. Among the Ministers of State, S.S. Palanimanickam was promised Finance with Revenue, K. Venkatapathy Law, S. Reghupathy Home with Personnel and Internal Security and Subbulakshmi Jagadeesan Social Justice and Empowerment.

With the Left parties throwing their weight behind the DMK, the issue acquired a sense of urgency. CPI national secretary D. Raja said it was not proper on the part of the Congress to deny the DMK what it had promised. "Karunanidhi certainly has a point. If there was an agreement to this effect, and there certainly is one as is clear by the letter, the Congress should honour its commitment. The Congress will have to sort it out," he said.

Raliways Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav.-RAVEENDRAN/AFP

The Congress honoured its commitment by requesting the Telengana Rashtra Samithi leader K. Chandrashekhara Rao to give up the Shipping portfolio. The Minister without portfolio later told mediapersons that he was only emulating Sonia Gandhi's example of renunciation in the interest of the nation. However, his interest is clearly in achieving a separate State of Telengana, the mention of which in the Common Minimum Programme was a condition for his joining the government.

Telengana will be one of the many sticky issues for the Manmohan Singh government, given the Congress' ambivalence on it. But in the immediate-term it is the "compulsions of coalition politics". For instance, the DMK got seven ministerial berths, including a heavy portfolio such as Communications and IT for Dayanidhi Maran, a first-timer in Parliament. The Paattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), another ally from Tamil Nadu, got for its nominee, Anbumani Ramadoss, the Health & Family Welfare portfolio. Anbumani is the son of the PMK leader S. Ramadoss and is not even an MP. Another PMK Minister, R. Velu, a retired officer of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), is a first-time MP.

Yet another `compulsion' for the Congress was the inclusion in the Cabinet of E. Ahmed of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), a trusted ally of the Congress in Kerala. The Kerala unit of the CPI(M) has taken exception to his inclusion, with Polit Bureau member and Leader of the Opposition in Kerala V.S. Achuthanandan calling it a negation of the people's verdict against the "aggressive communalism and disastrous economic policies of the NDA government". He termed the decision "undemocratic" and "a stain on secularism" and said that the Congress had only reaffirmed its policy of "communal appeasement".

Home Minister Shivraj Patil.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

The inclusion of members who have criminal cases against them in the Ministry is also likely to create some friction. They include Laloo Prasad and his colleagues Jay Prakash Narayan Yadav and Mohammad Taslimuddin. While Laloo Prasad is facing trial in the fodder scam and disproportionate assets cases, Taslimuddin has a number of cases against him, including those on charges of murder and rape. He had to quit the Deve Gowda government in 1996 following a furore over his inclusion. Jay Prakash Narayan has cases of forgery and fraud against him.

Leaders of the Left parties are of the view that the Prime Minister, with his "Mr Clean" image, should have avoided including the tainted members in his Ministry. "This is not a welcome development, but we don't want to make this an issue so soon. But, undoubtedly, this will give the NDA an issue to criticise the government in Parliament. We will find it difficult to defend the government in that case," said a senior Left leader.

Food and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar.-B. MATHUR/ REUTERS

The Left parties also have their reservations on defeated candidates being included in the Cabinet and given charge of key portfolios. Shivraj Patil, who lost from Latur in Maharashtra, is the new Home Minister and P.M. Sayeed, who lost narrowly from Lakshadweep, is the Minister for Power.

There is also Praful Patel, who lost from Bhandara in Maharashtra, but is now the Civil Aviation Minister. "This is not an encouraging development and makes a mockery of the democratic process," said a senior Left leader.

What Manmohan Singh will perhaps find most difficult to defend is the under-representation of States in his 68-member Ministry. Uttar Pradesh, which sends 80 members to the Lok Sabha, has only two Ministers, Mahabir Prasad and Sri Prakash Jaiswal, while Uttaranchal, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh have very few or none at all. On the other hand, Tamil Nadu, with 39 members, has 13 Ministers and Bihar, where the RJD-led alliance won 23 seats, has 11 Ministers.

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