Messy coalition politics


Behind the Pawar gambit

It has been a long while since anyone has issued an ultimatum to Sonia Gandhi and survived to tell the tale. On July 24, Sharad Pawar sent a public message to the Congress president: ‘Find a solution to all my problems with your satraps in 24 hours or I am out of here.’ Those 24 hours silently slipped to 48, but eventually Congress provided some band-aid for Pawar’s ego. That is about as good as it gets for supplicants in the court of the Congress empire.

For the eight years that Sonia Gandhi and Sharad Pawar have been partners in UPA, Mrs Gandhi has treated Pawar, who was chief minister of Maharashtra when Rajiv Gandhi was an Indian Airlines pilot, with the indifference reserved for unwelcome fellow travellers. If Mrs Gandhi had a smile to waste, it was not bestowed on Pawar. She has neither forgotten nor forgiven Pawar’s opposition to her nomination, by acclamation rather than election, as president of Congress. Pawar also opposed the idea of Mrs Gandhi becoming prime minister in 2004. Mrs Gandhi’s link with NCP is through the more amenable Praful Patel. She campaigned for Patel in both 2004 and 2009; actually, Patel got the smallest leads in the Assembly segment where she addressed meetings, but, to be fair, this could as well be because he took her to the most hostile areas in his constituency.

Pawar, conversely, has an excellent equation with Dr Manmohan Singh. Dr Singh would have given him a portfolio somewhat more suited to his heavy weight in politics, if he had not been prevented by Mrs Gandhi. Pawar was also an early champion of Pranab Mukherjee’s elevation to Rashtrapati Bhavan, a development about which Mrs Gandhi had reservations. This does not mean, however, that there are two factions in NCP. Patel is not commander of a pro-Clive faction in Siraj ud Daulah’s army. He is loyal to his leader, Pawar, who determines strategy on how to confront both allies and foes. They play good cop/bad cop in harmony.

So what is Pawar’s strategy? There are four stages in a political rift. The first is murmur. This rumble is heard, but does not really register for everyone knows that it will take much more than a belly ache for the volcano to burst. The second step is an insurrection that leaves space for a bargain. But an element of risk has entered. The primary purpose might be to increase discomfort rather than destabilise, but both sides know that they cannot allow demand to far outpace supply. The third is low-intensity rebellion in a cluster confrontation: In the present context, it would amount to ‘Congress proposes, partner disposes’. The final stage is divorce, but this needs existential provocation: The mess must be toxic. A mere quarrel can set up estrangement, but is insufficient grounds for separation.

The principal Congress allies are in ferment. DMK is rumbling. Circumstances have made it a helpless prisoner of its own anger. However humiliating this cage for a proud regional party, it is better than the fierce jungle outside, teeming with big carnivorous cats. Sharad Pawar, who kept his rumble very quiet, has opened his public campaign with an insurrection that is looking for a bargain. Mamata Banerjee has reached the third level of rage. But both Pawar and Banerjee know the direction in which they are moving. Pawar understands the dangers of being punctured like a damp squib. He would not have raised the stakes without a long-term plan, since he is not going to get what his party really wants, a new CM in Mumbai.

Pawar believes Prithviraj Chavan may be the most honest CM Congress has produced since 2004, but his administration is a failure. He does not want to pay his share of the price. That is at the heart of this dramatic script: Governance and accountability. The complete shambles in Congress-ruled states is as astonishing as inexplicable. Three years ago, Andhra, Assam and Haryana were models of political rectitude. They have degenerated into cesspools of social violence and political instability. Communal tensions and riots have reappeared in Assam, which gave Congress a historic victory and could now punish it with historic defeat. What has happened when, seemingly, nothing new has happened? You crash when you lose control of your vehicle and your nerve. Intoxication might be one reason; complacence, another. Allies are trying to shift away from the steering wheel, on which they are permitted only the occasional finger in any case, so that they might be able to swerve away from the wreck when it comes.

The story is not what is happening in Delhi but the dangerous and gathering chaos outside, from the capital’s doorstep to the farthest boundaries of the nation. Trouble is not a Congress monopoly. BJP is careering towards disaster in Karnataka, and within months of spectacular success, Mulayam Singh Yadav is reviving a nostalgia for Mayawati in UP. This is the miserable jam that is holding up India.

The columnist is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and Editorial Director, India Today and Headlines Today.