New innings

Published : Jun 19, 2009 00:00 IST

PRIME MINISTER MANMOHAN Singh, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, and Cabinet Ministers Pranab Mukherjee, A.K. Antony and Mamata Banerjee at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on May 28.-RAJEEV BHATT

PRIME MINISTER MANMOHAN Singh, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, and Cabinet Ministers Pranab Mukherjee, A.K. Antony and Mamata Banerjee at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on May 28.-RAJEEV BHATT

THE elections to the 15th Lok Sabha may have seen a revival of the Congress in many parts of the country with a significant rise in the number of its Members of Parliament, but the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government led by it has to still function under the limitations of a hung Parliament. Undoubtedly, this is the dominant message that has emanated from the early days of the second innings of the Manmohan Singh Ministry. The developments in the first two weeks show that, contrary to expectations, there has been no drastic reduction of the bargaining powers of the regional parties in the UPA. The early trends in governance, including the formation of a 78-member, three-tiered Ministry, points out that despite getting a clear verdict for a second term, the leadership of the Congress and the UPA is yet to evolve a clear policy direction, and find ways to address regional demands for representation in the Ministry.

The persistent bargaining power of the regional forces became evident even as the first lot of Cabinet Ministers, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, was being sworn in on May 22. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), rated throughout the 2004-09 regime of the UPA as the most trusted South Indian ally of the Congress, boycotted the swearing-in ceremony, alleging that the portfolio offers being made to the party were inadequate. It was also unhappy that the Congress was trying to dictate the choice of the partys Ministers.

The DMK demanded eight ministerial berths, four Cabinet and four Ministers of State. The Congress was ready to accommodate only two Cabinet Ministers and three Ministers of State. There were also indications that the Prime Minister himself wanted the DMK to refrain from renominating T.R. Baalu and A. Raja, who had held significant portfolios in the previous regime. Both faced allegations of corruption and mishandling of power. As for the number of Ministers, the Congress held that its West Bengal ally Trinamool Congress was demanding only three ministerial berths in spite of winning 19 seats as against the DMKs 18.

The DMK leadership was upset with this comparison and pointed out that the party had given 16 seats to the Congress in the current elections, six more than 2004. The party also pointed out that it had been the Congress most dependable ally in its previous term, that it accepted the leadership of Sonia Gandhi in 2004, and that it had stood like a rock behind the government when the Left parties withdrew their support to it over the nuclear deal.

The Congress indicated that even if there were to be some adjustments in terms of the number of Ministers, there would be no compromise on inducting tainted ministers. According to sources in the UPA, former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad and National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan held negotiations with the DMK to settle the controversy.

Azad addressed the political dimension and the numbers issue while Narayanan handled the issue of allegations against the tainted ministers. The UPA sources added that all these efforts were cleverly foiled by DMK president and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi.

At one point, when the negotiators sought to argue forcefully that a particular Minister be kept out on account of the vigilance cases against him, Karunanidhi reportedly told that the cases were not bigger than the ones faced by Ottavio Quattrochi, a friend of the Congress and relative of the partys first family. At the end of it all, Manmohan Singh was compelled to compromise both on numbers as well as on personalities.

The DMK got three Cabinet and four Ministers of State. The Cabinet Ministers of the DMK are A. Raja, whose entry the Congress leadership had sought to prevent, Dayanidhi Maran and Karunanidhis son M.K. Azhagiri.

While the DMK imbroglio underlined the power that regional forces continue to have in the present political dispensation, other developments pointed to a sense of hesitancy and confusion in the Ministry-making exercise. The inordinate delay in the allocation of portfolios to a large number of Ministers was an unmistakable indication of this. Thirteen of the 19 Ministers who took the oath of office with the Prime Minister on May 22 were not allotted portfolios for almost a week. This generated considerable embarrassment and resentment within the Congress, among the Ministers and aspirants.

This sense of confusion was accentuated when Manmohan Singh expanded his Cabinet with 58 new Ministers on May 28. The exercise betrayed a lack of concern in addressing regional imbalances in ministerial representation or even in rewarding regions or States that had given the Congress good results in the elections. The most conspicuous example was Uttar Pradesh where the Congress more than doubled its tally from nine in 2004 to 21 in 2009 fighting the elections without allies. Despite this impressive victory in the countrys most populous State, there was not a single Cabinet Minister from Uttar Pradesh. The State has been allotted two Ministers of State with independent charge former Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee president Salman Khursheed and Minister of State for Home Sriprakash Jaiswal and three Ministers of State, Jitin Prasada, R.P.N. Singh and Pradeep Jain. Prasada was a Minister in the previous government. The other two are first-timers.

Significantly, senior leader and former Union Cabinet Minister Beni Prasad Verma, who crossed over from the Mulayam Singh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party (S.P.), bringing a chunk of the Other Backward Classes (OBC) Kurmi votes to the Congress, has been ignored. Rajasthan, where the Congress won 21 of 25 seats, has just one Cabinet Minister and three Ministers of State.

States where the Congress had poor and not-so-remarkable performances got better representation in the Ministry. Himachal Pradesh where the Congress won a single seat has two Cabinet Ministers, Virbhadra Singh from the Lok Sabha and Anand Sharma from the Rajya Sabha. Karnataka, which gave just six seats to the Congress, has three Cabinet Ministers.

Commenting on the Cabinet formation exercise, a senior Congress leader from Uttar Pradesh said that it had become a game where big leaders from small States managed to grab important Cabinet portfolios. According to him, the whole exercise smacked of personal likes and dislikes, and political, organisational or governance factors did not seem to matter.

A coterie has already developed at the Centre and they have started to influence the decisions of the leadership and the first family, especially Rahul Gandhi, he said. The leader is of the view that someone like Beni Prasad Verma was kept out of the Cabinet because of the machinations of a group close to Salman Khursheed that managed to influence the first family. It was important to bring in somebody like Verma, with an OBC profile, to counter the influence of Bahujan Samaj Party [BSP] Chief Minister Mayawati and S.P. president Mulayam Singh Yadav. But that was not done, he said.

Many other Congress leaders cite the cases of some newly inducted Cabinet Ministers to highlight the bias. For instance, they say, Vilasrao Deshmukh, the former Maharashtra Chief Minister who has been given Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises Ministry, is not even an MP. Many point out that Deshmukh was removed as Chief Minister of Maharashtra after the November 2008 terror attack on Mumbai.

By all indications, the Congress decision to induct Deshmukh was motivated by the urge to sideline another Maratha leader, Sharad Pawar, president of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). It is also seen as an indicator of the Congress plans to go it alone in the next Assembly elections in Maharashtra.

M.S. Gills elevation to the Cabinet rank, too, has come as a big surprise. His track record as Minister of Sports in the previous government was considered lacklustre. Even his re-induction, not to speak of promotion, was opposed by large sections of the Punjab unit of the Congress.

Perhaps the only area where Manmohan Singh and the Congress leadership seemed to have lived up to expectations is in the induction of young faces such as Sachin Pilot, R.P.N. Singh, Prateek Patil, Vincent Pala and Agatha Sangma into the Ministry. But there is general agreement even within the Congress that this youth representation is only a minor positive compared with the overall confusion and lack of direction of the Ministry-making exercise.

According to a former Minister, for a party that has won 206 seats, the leaderships road map, as reflected in the parameters of Ministry making, is indeed extremely disappointing. Manmohan Singhs second innings was supposed to be about a bold, new beginning and clear policy perspectives. But the Ministry-formation exercise does not reflect any policy direction vis-a-vis economic liberalisation or social sector initiatives, he said. He also wondered how Manmohan Singh would fulfil his promise of reviving the economy in 100 days when he handled the Ministry formation in such a confused and ham-handed manner.

In the midst of all this despondency, the Congress can certainly take heart from the fact that its political opponents are yet to get over the thrashing they received in the elections.

The principal opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance, is evidently groping for issues and a concrete, constructive leadership to advance politically and organisationally.

The non-Congress, non-BJP formation sought to be built up by the Left parties in association with political forces such as the Telugu Desam Party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Biju Janata Dal is in tatters, with the parties failing to hold a proposed joint meeting after the results.

The BSP, which was to join these forces, did a volte-face and offered support to the UPA government. So has the Fourth Front, which comprises the Samajwadi Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal of Lalu Prasad and the Lok Janshakti Party of Ram Vilas Paswan.

This disarray in the opposition is indeed favourable to the Congress, but the question that the early days of the Manmohan Singh Ministry raises is whether a government can move forward politically and administratively merely on the strength of its opponents weaknesses.

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