Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Power & Politics/ Mail Today, November 23, 2009

IN the increasingly fragmented polity, the narrow line that divides the treasury and the opposition gets thinner by the day. As Congress leaders continue to strut around with an air of arrogance that is a perversion of their real strength — the party has after all 207 of the 542 Lok Sabha MPs — there is a real chance of the line disappearing altogether. Back to back victories in by- elections and the retention of crucial states like Maharashtra and Haryana have made Congressmen believe in their own invincibility.

The haughtiness of the Congress is forcing the disparate opposition and even some alliance partners to find common ground, as was witnessed when the winter session of Parliament opened last Thursday. UPA allies like the DMK joined the Left, BJP, RJD, TDP and Samajwadi Party in the massive farmers rally organised by Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal that disrupted life in the capital and brought Parliament to a standstill. It is an important moment.

Not since 1989 have parties across the political spectrum joined hands on a common anti- Congress platform. The issue being remunerative prices for farmers, it was perhaps foretold that the Congress led government would capitulate and revoke the ordinance on sugarcane pricing.

But that’s beside the point. My hunch is that the assorted non- Congress parties, whether allies or opposition, think the Congress has an attitude problem. A veteran opposition leader recently told me that he had not seen such arrogance even during the eighth Lok Sabha when Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress had occupied nearly four- fifth of the seats in the lower house. The arrogance is harder to digest because without the support from outside of parties like the SP and the BSP, the government is technically still in a minority.

Under sustained pressure from the opposition, the government backed down on the sugarcane issue. I suspect this is just the beginning and we will in the near future have plenty of opportunities to find the government with its back to the wall. This week, the prime minister is off to Washington. The Left parties, which opposed the Indo- US nuclear deal last year and the SP whose support bailed out the government in the confidence motion last year, will be keeping a close watch. Much hype was built around the visit which is the first state visit of the Obama administration. A lot of the hype was punctured last week during the course of Obama’s tour of China, Japan and South Korea; India wasn’t even a blip on President Obama’s radar. Worse, by asking his Chinese hosts to act as a middleman on Indo- Pak matters, Obama showed his priorities.

This has flummoxed even pro- US elements in the establishment. As Manmohan packs his Manmohan bags for the long journey, the news out of Washington is not encouraging either. PTI reports that the Obama administration has sought yet another “ assurance” from India on nuclear non- proliferation, in the absence of which, the US will not issue licences to US companies to enter into civilian nuclear trade with India. Though couched in diplomatese, in an interview with India Today magazine last week, the US Ambassador in Delhi, Timothy Roemer also made it clear that “ the Indian government has all along known about… our licensing procedures. These are not new demands”. The ambassador also spoke about the liability legislation that the US is pressing for, which, in the event of things going wrong due to faulty design or technology, would absolve American suppliers of all liability and put the onus of paying compensation on the Indian government.

Among the more than 80 bills that are to come up before Parliament during the ongoing winter session is the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill 2009.
The government will be very eager to push it through but the opposition parties, having tasted blood once, will not let the government have it easy.

The Manmohan visit was finalised months ago, but as it nears, it appears to be a case of bad timing. The warmth of the reception he is expected to get and the elaborate fare at the banquet inside heated tents on the White House lawns notwithstanding, it appears that Obama will have far more on his mind when Manmohan is around. The last time he went to the White House, George Bush was in office and Manmohan gushed “ MR President, Indians love you”. He won’t be saying that this time.

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