Reluctant gambler hits Indian jackpot
BANGALORE - After a fortnight of intense backroom bartering and two days of heated parliamentary debate, India's United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government has won a vote of confidence in parliament by 275 to 256, with 10 abstentions. The thumbs-up will give the government a fresh lease of life. It also gives Prime Minister Manmohan Singh the go-ahead to push the India-United States civilian nuclear agreement to its conclusion.
In the end, the UPA government won the vote by a convincing margin. It has a mandate from parliament now on the nuclear deal. With the vote behind him, the prime minister will now step on the gas to take the nuclear agreement forward.
Manmohan, generally viewed as a weak and unassertive prime minister, has emerged from the vote as a tough leader, who is willing to take risks. If in 1991 he, as finance minister, took the requisite steps to put India on the path of economic liberalization, he has proved now that he will risk his post and the government to persevere with the nuclear agreement to end India's nuclear isolation. So far looked on as a quiet, respected but reticent economist-turned-reluctant politician, Manmohan has emerged from Tuesday's vote as a strategist and a smart politician.
But he and his government have come out of the contest with their image tainted. Over the past fortnight, unprincipled alliances were forged, ministerial portfolios and election tickets were dangled and huge sums of money were reported to have been offered to win support. It did seem that the government was willing to adopt any means to assure its survival.
If speculation over the cash-for-votes wasn't bad enough, ugly scenes of cash flashing in parliament followed on Tuesday. Less than an hour before the prime minister was to give his concluding speech in Parliament, three members of parliament (MPs) of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) emptied a bag of currency notes, alleging that they had been offered around $2 million by the UPA's new ally, the Samajwadi Party (SP) to vote with the government.
Although the allegations are yet to be substantiated and were obviously an attempt by the BJP to scuttle the vote and embarrass the government, still it has left a blot on the UPA government.
The government might have won the vote but it is hardly in a position to celebrate, leave alone heave a sigh of relief.
Winning the vote was the easy part. It will have to deliver on the promises it made to the MPs to win their backing and give them the portfolios that were promised. The support on which the government is standing today is based not on shared ideology or programmatic understanding but on rank opportunism. It is a matter of time before the MPs who were lured with portfolios and election nominations return to demand more. Clearly, the government is standing on very shaky legs.
If the Congress and the UPA have emerged from the vote with their image tainted, the other parties - the BJP, the left, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the other smaller parties are hardly smelling of roses. After all, with the exception of the left, all the parties were busy poaching support and engaging in horse-trading.
But for the BSP, which managed to use the current political maneuvering to sew up some smart alliances that could propel it to a major role in the next government, the others have lost out in the recent crisis.
The left is in the doghouse for having triggered off the political crisis in the first place. It has severely undermined its secular credentials by joining hands with the right-wing BJP to bring down the UPA.
But it is the BJP which has emerged the biggest loser. Ironically, this was the party that was expected to gain the most when the crisis erupted. It was expected to win in elections in the event of the government falling.
Believing it would win in a snap poll, it opposed the deal to bring down the government. That was an unprincipled about-turn. After all it was the BJP that took the first steps on the nuclear agreement when it initiated the strategic dialogue with the US after the 1998 nuclear tests. Its bid to scuttle the agreement has not gone down well with its urban, middle-class supporters.
Worse, when the BSP made rapid gains in sewing alliances, the BJP realized that its chances in a snap poll would not be quite as bright as it had originally calculated. This prompted it to soften its effort to bring down the government. During the debate in parliament, its assault on the government wasn't aggressive enough. Obviously, the prospect of the electoral battle that lay beyond the vote and outside parliament loomed.
With the numbers game slowly swinging in favor of the government - abstentions among its ranks and that of its allies was being reported - it appears to have decided to go down maligning the UPA. Hence the dramatic allegations of bribery on the floor of the house ahead of the vote. But even this drama could go against it as the cash-flashing in parliament has been seen by many as disrespect to the dignity of parliament.
The smirk on the face of its leaders visible in the run-up to the vote has suddenly vanished.
The UPA has its work cut out for the next few months. An investigation into the bribery charges is likely and should that prove the bribery allegations, the vote will be a pyrrhic victory.
In the short lease of life it has got with the vote, it will have to rush and act on inflation and rising prices. It doesn't have a chance of electoral victory if it goes to the polls in the present economic situation.
Meanwhile, it will be hoping that its efforts on the nuclear agreement will be fruitful so that it can hold it up as among its achievements.
Under the India-US nuclear agreement, India, a nuclear weapon power that is not a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), can access nuclear reactors, technology and fuel. It will end India's 30-year long nuclear isolation in return for India opening up its civilian nuclear facilities to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)inspections. By defying the left and pressing ahead with the nuclear agreement and by risking a vote, the UPA has earned itself some brownie points. It has signaled commitment to ending India's nuclear isolation, improving its energy security and enhancing its stature on the international stage.
The coming months will be action packed as it works to push the agreement through.
The immediate challenge before the government is winning the approval of the IAEA board of governors on the India-specific safeguards agreement. India has convened a formal meeting of the IAEA Secretariat in Vienna on July 25 to brief all member-states on the technical aspects of the proposed India-specific safeguards agreement. The IAEA board is slated to meet on August 1 to discuss and possibly approve the safeguards agreement.
Approval by the IAEA board is unlikely to be difficult, say officials.
However, Pakistan, one of the 35 members on the board is reported to be blocking a consensus. It has raised a technical point that the nuclear facilities to be brought under safeguards have not been listed in the annexures of the agreement finalized with India. It has raised objections to the urgency being shown in Vienna to push the India-specific safeguards agreement, reports Indian Express.
If a consensus cannot be reached, it can be voted on but India is keen to avoid a vote. If there is a vote, IAEA member states that have strong positions on non-proliferation and are also members of the NSG "will be forced to take positions on the Indo-US nuclear deal. This, in turn, can have adverse fallout in the NSG where these countries would be bound by a public stand [taken in the IAEA]. Since NSG takes its decisions only by way of consensus, a lack of flexibility may escalate problems for US interlocutors who will be making the case for India [in the NSG]," points out Indian Express.
The going will not be easy in the NSG but if India gets its nod - the US, France, Russia and others are expected to push India's case at the NSG - the agreement will go back to the US Congress for an up-down vote. The US Congressional calendar might not have the requisite number of working days left to clear the deal before US President George W Bush's tenure expires in January 2009.
Like the nuclear deal which is running up against a time constraint, the UPA is running on borrowed time. Analysts are giving it another couple of months of survival at the maximum. The supportive legs on which the government stands are expected to crumble soon.
It is likely that the government will dissolve parliament in September and call for elections in November. That will be about six months before its term ends.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.
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