By tying up with the Samajwadi Party, Sonia Gandhi is looking beyond the Nuke deal to safeguard her political future which depends on how important a role she will get to play after the next elections.
While presenting his first Union budget in 1991, Manmohan Singh, then finance minister, said, “No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come.” Last week, the prime minister, perhaps among the least combative to have occupied the high office, decided that it was time he lived up to Victor Hugo’s words and did something that would once and for all put an end to the frequent taunts of being “the weakest prime minister India has ever had”. While in Japan to attend the G-8 Summit, he announced that India would be going to the International Atomic Energy Agency (iaea) to seek its approval for the civil nuclear agreement with the US. In doing so, he displayed a resolve that he has seldom shown in the past. After all, it was only during the last session of Parliament that, faced with the stiff opposition even from upa allies, the Government had almost shelved the deal. The opposition parties took it as further proof of the lameness of the governing duck. Now, there is a spring in upa’s step as reflected in the alliance’s readiness to seek a confidence vote on an issue which is likely to get submerged in a year of double-digit inflation and internal security disasters. Less than a month ago, the deal was considered as good as dead and the Gole Market commissars were gloating “we told you so”. Why then this sudden confrontationist mood in upa whose reputation for succumbing to pressure from allies even makes the word “coalition” look unholy? The reality is that upa’s decision to flex its muscles did not come overnight. For the last few months, it has been clear as morning light that the Congress was looking for an excuse to get rid of the heavy baggage that is the Left, a party which it has to confront in two big states in a few months. For the upa Government, the Left’s utility value had run out. For the past few months, Manmohan may have been obsessed with the N-deal, but Sonia Gandhi was looking at life beyond the summer of 2009. So far, she kept the Left in good humour. But on an issue that’s hugely important for the Government, she turned in a performance of great maturity. She taunted them and made them withdraw support.But not before ensuring that there is life after the Left. For her, the nuclear deal was a camouflage to safeguard her own political future, knowing that her relevance in national politics will depend on how important a role she will be able to play in the 15th Lok Sabha. She was canny enough to let Manmohan start a N-deal duel with the Left way back in 2006, but by setting up the Left-upa coordination committee, she sought to convey the impression that, on the N-deal, she and the prime minister were not on the same wavelength. That unlike him, she was keen that the ties flourish. The Left trusted her honourable instincts, oblivious of the fact that she was seeking out potential partners for a tie-up that would go beyond merely rescuing the upa Government in the event of pullout by the Left. She kept herself abreast of all details about deadlines for India to approach both iaea and Nuclear Suppliers Group (nsg), using her independent sources in the foreign office and elsewhere even as the prime minister was pushing for an immediate showdown with the Left. The fact that Ronen Sen, India’s Ambassador to the US and a close friend of the Gandhi family, was asked to continue beyond his tenure is perhaps proof of the hawk’s eye she kept on the N-deal related developments. At home, the turning point was Mayawati’s rise in Uttar Pradesh last year. Sonia initially tried to cosy up to the Bahujan Samaj Party (bsp) chief who spurned her advances. That was Mayawati’s way of conveying to Sonia and Rahul Gandhi that she had added them to the list of those she intended to pursue. The list till then consisted of the names of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Amar Singh. The Samajwadi Party (sp) leaders, until then also hounded by the upa Government and the Gandhi family, were looking for the right opportunity to make up. The story then took a sad twist, which leaders of the two parties hope will have a happy ending. Upon Amar Singh’s father’s death, condolence letters went out to him from Manmohan, Sonia and Rahul. Those were followed up with phone calls which continued even when Amar Singh underwent prolonged treatment in a US hospital. Other gestures followed, like the Z-class security that was suddenly put in place for the sp leader. And when the upa Government celebrated its fourth anniversary in office in May, Amar Singh was invited to the dinner that the prime minister hosted. Such small gestures matter a lot to Amar Singh and you could sense that a new relationship was blossoming. With the Government no more dependent on the Left, it is a win-win situation for Sonia and Manmohan. By getting sp on board, they have virtually dismantled the United National Progressive Alliance (unpa)—the Third Front in its latest avatar—which was talking in terms of staking claim for the post of prime minister on the strength of a hundred seats or thereabouts. Even diehard optimists within the Left don’t believe they will come anywhere near the 14th Lok Sabha tally of 61. And with Congressmen conceding the likelihood of losses in Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Haryana, Assam, it’s Gujarat, Kerala, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh that offer hope for the party. But none so much as the last, with its 80 seats where currently the Congress is a fringe player. But in association with sp, it could prove a formidable combine. Don’t be surprised then, if, as the date of the trust vote approaches, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Vayalar Ravi takes a break and passes on the job of floor coordination to Amar Singh. The UPA Government may just sail through.