In India, the comedy of power-sharing

Posted in India | 02-Jun-09 | Author: Santwana Bhattacharya| Source: Asia Times

India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, ruling Congress party Chief Sonia Gandhi, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Defence Minister A. K. Antony, Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee, Cabinet ministers Ghulam Nabi Azad, Veerappa Moily, Jaipal Reddy and Murli Deora attend an oath-taking ceremony inside the presidential palace in New Delhi May 28, 2009.

NEW DELHI - Twelve days after the very surprising Indian election results were out, 10 days after Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam chief V Prabhakaran's body was found by the Sri Lankan army near Nandikadal lagoon, nine days after Aung San Suu Kyi's trial began in Myanmar, three days after Nepal turned a corner in its tumultuous politics, and a day after suicide bombers ripped through the heart of Lahore, a government finally took shape in New Delhi.

For once, it seemed history - carrying its burden of sub-continental deaths, destruction and tales of intimidation - was about to outpace contemporary politics. It was an unusually protracted wait outside the delivery room.

But wasn't this supposed to be an emphatic vote for continuity, for the comfort of the familiar? So what took Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress party president Sonia Gandhi so much time to put a team together? Surprisingly, the huge mandate the Congress got turned out to be the hindrance. A bigger victory betokened not a bigger pie, but a larger number of people that justifiably expect a piece of it.

Thus, the louder the celebratory firecrackers outside 10 Janpath - the New Delhi residence of the Congress president - the longer the queue of fat cars became. No sooner had the exercise of choosing cabinet ministers begun, aspirants made sure they were in the frame. (In the case of the mercurial Farooq Abdullah, former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister, this was accomplished by petulantly and noisily storming off to watch the Indian Premiere League cricket finals in South Africa when his name didn't figure in the first round.) Even in this spectacle of democratic power-sharing, rendered as full-blown comedy, there were significant patterns, a few markers for the future.

But the bustle around the Congress, the haggling, the noise of the bazaar, was itself a sign of how things had changed in a very short while. A few days before the May 16 results, a senior Congress functionary had predicted ruefully that "a government can be in place only by the end of the month". Everyone present had concluded that he meant to indicate - and he most probably meant to - the uncertainty of a fractured verdict, the legal quagmire of a hung parliament. His statement turned out prophetic. For all the wrong reasons though. In a twist in the tale worthy of the masters of the genre, it was not a number drought that caused the delay but its opposite, a downright embarrassment of riches.

Political parties, even from camps not particularly friendly to the Congress, voluntarily rushed to the president of India to submit their letters of support to the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). The numbers with the UPA climbed to 325, way beyond the simple majority mark of 272 that everyone thought would be out of everyone's reach. The comfort levels rose to such a point that it quickly started getting suffocating. By lending unprompted support, everyone was clearly looking for a quid pro quo.

Almost a breathless fortnight later, Manmohan and Sonia Gandhi admitted managing the strong supply line was "a difficult and taxing job". But it had to be done for the sake of present equilibrium and future growth. Forming a government was not simply a corporate-style question of finding the right people for the right job - that basic imperative had to married with the subtler demands of representative politics. Pruning, grafting and retooling an old team for a new game, thwarting the unreasonable and satisfying those who won't be denied, all this had to be done while managing perceptions.

Such a composite play offers all the pleasures of a minefield. The first major explosion - actually a series of sharp ones - was reported as Muthuvel Karunanidhi, the chief of Congress's southern ally Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), rode into town with his entire entourage of sons, daughters, grand-nephews and other grandees, all aspiring ministers. Having scripted a win that no one would have bet their money on, the wheelchair-bound Karunanidhi expected to be handsomely rewarded with plum portfolios, no less than nine. Three cabinet berths and the rest junior ministers.

Surprising though it may seem for a group of top Tamil politicians, no one here had Sri Lanka on their minds. No talk of the Tamil refugees herded into camps in the warzone, of relief measures, or of the need to put pressure on Colombo to ensure a political package is worked out for the island's long-suffering Tamil population. The emotive election was past - the rhetoric had already delivered the votes. Now was the time to stake claim to your own relief package, to stock up on ammo to take care of the coming five years.

In the outgoing government, the DMK held plum infrastructure portfolios: shipping, surface transport, IT and communications, to name a few. This time, they not only wanted what they had but some more, such as railways, health and commerce. But between 2004 and now, a key equation had changed. From being a 145-member party in parliament, very much at the mercy of its coalition partners, the Congress has regained its stature with 206 seats. It would not yield so easily to "friendly" bullying. Karunanidhi left Delhi in a huff, threatening not to join the government. A few days of sulk ended with a bit of cajoling over the phone by the prime minister, and he returned meekly to accept whatever was on offer.

Finally, the DMK had to settle for textiles, chemicals and fertilizers plus IT and communications - all ministries that oversee those particular sectors. And, a few junior ministers of state, a subordinate position, to sugar-coat the deal. (Work allocation to junior ministers largely depends on the cabinet minister's whims. Often they are left with very little to do except answering difficult parliamentary questions.) The DMK had been cut to size. If Karunanidhi accepted the deal, it was only because it helped him control the vaulting ambitions in his own ranks.

But taming the DMK solved only part of the problem. As Sonia and Manmohan realized, Congress leaders themselves could act equally peevishly. Having won 206 seats, they thought it was their "party" as well. Individual leaders exerted themselves to keep old allies and willing suitors out of the race so they did not have to share the pie. Such was the clamor for cabinet-rank postings that portfolio distribution had to be held back even after the ornate Ashoka Hall of Rashtrapati Bhavan - the palatial, colonial-era residence of the Indian president - had played host to two rounds of oath-taking.

The prime minister himself took his oath of office on May 22 along with 19 others. The all-important finance portfolio was allocated to party veteran and second-in-command Pranab Mukherjee; the home ministry stayed with P Chidambaram (the glib corporate lawyer moved there from finance after the Mumbai terror strikes of last November); railways went to the leader of the largest ally, Mamata Banerjee; the squeaky-clean A K Antony expectedly kept defense; and foreign affairs went unexpectedly to S M Krishna (a former chief minister of the southern state of Karnataka).

The rest were kept waiting without portfolios until the morning of Friday, May 29. The portfolios of 78 ministers were announced at one go, one day after the second swearing-in ceremony where as many as 59 ministers took oath. "Several factors like availability of talent and other considerations played a role in the making of the team. People expect more than business as usual," Manmohan said in his usual workaday fashion afterwards.

So at the end of two weeks, it turned out to be one jumbo cabinet. No less than six former chief ministers jostled their way in, including two ex-chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir (Farooq Abdullah and Ghulam Nabi Azad), two of Karnataka (Veerappa Moily and S M Krishna). Seventy-seven-year-old Krishna's induction was the most astonishing event. Not only did he not contest the elections, he was cooling off after losing the last assembly elections in his home state to the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. Known to have "good access" to Manmohan, he was perhaps chosen for the calmness of age. He's suave, soft-spoken and can be expected to bring a non-belligerent, if copybook, approach to the ministry. Analysts, however, feel it might equally call for sagacity and creative initiative to deal with a South Asia in flames.

Another surprise was the shifting of former commerce minister Kamal Nath, who had pulled off quite a coup at the World Trade Organization talks in Davos, to the gritty and unglamorous ministry for surface transport. Some see this as a clear signal of intent from the prime minister; he wants the more energetic hands rolling up their sleeves to rev up basic infrastructure (in this case, roadways and highways). This ministry was with the DMK and saw little work in the last five years, with contracts worth $10 billion stuck in the pipeline.

Manmohan has been responsible for key paradigm shifts whenever he has been in government. He completely overhauled India's economic policy in the early 1990s, bringing in reforms. By 2008, he had formally changed the course of India's foreign policy by signing the India-United States nuclear deal. This time, he is expected to open up the higher education sector to foreign participation. His choice of Kapil Sibal, a senior Supreme Court lawyer and science and technology minister last time, is being seen as significant.

Although some allies lost out, Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar - his prime ministerial ambitions decisively thwarted - has retained his hold over the agriculture portfolio. An acknowledgement of his work, notwithstanding his controversial decision to import wheat. It needs to be seen how the social welfare slant the Congress would like the Manmohan government to take can be married to the market orientation of Pawar's agriculture policy.

The coming days would show whether a faultline develops between Pawar and the Congress leadership. The Congress sees its victory in this elections as an unambiguous vote for welfarism, as enshrined in the rural employment guarantee scheme and the massive farm loan waiver of 2008, and it would soon like to bring in a food security bill. How Pawar responds to it would be interesting to watch.

The biggest straw in the wind is the fact that the Congress leadership chose the socialist-minded Mukherjee over the aggressively pro-reform Montek Singh Ahluwalia as finance minister. It is widely rumored that Manmohan's preference for Ahluwalia, currently the Planning Commission deputy chairman, was shot down by a cautious party. Mukherjee, expected to present the budget in parliament in early July, could bring an urban employment guarantee scheme (on the lines of the rural job scheme) and cut interest rates of loans for farmers and the poor. He's also hinting at another economic stimulus package for infrastructure by way of massive government investment.

Mukherjee, who has returned as finance minister after a quarter of a century, would have to step up spending to support growth even at the risk of widening fiscal deficit. The Indian economy has been hit much more by the global recession than the government is prepared to admit. He also has to create jobs in this recessionary market to meet the aspirations of the youth who are said to have voted for Congress.

Youth is fast becoming an obsession of the Manmohan government. The young Gandhi scion, Rahul, is held to be instrumental in attracting young voters (the Congress won 75 of the 82 seats for which he campaigned) and has been demanding more representation for them. Thus has been born a new constituency within government, leading to the induction of seven junior ministers below the age of 40. The youngest of all is Agatha Sangma, a 27-year-old law graduate from the northeastern state of Meghalaya.

Now to see if this elaborately wrought vehicle - this "mix of youth and experience", as Manmohan himself proffered - can move as fast as he wants to meet his 100-day targets.

Santwana Bhattacharya is a New Delhi-based journalist who writes on politics, parliament and elections. She is currently working on a book on electoral reforms and the emergence of regional parties in India.