The Indian media this week are full of prime minister Manmohan Singh’s mounting headaches. There were rumours of his resignation and a consequent slump in the stock market. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), a major partner of his coalition, threatened on Thursday to quit his government if he did not immediately call off a plan to shed ten per cent of equity in a state-owned unit called the Neyveli Lignite Corporation in the southern state of Tamilnadu. DMK is one of the two Dravida parties that have ruled Tamilnadu since the sixties ending the rule of the Indian National Congress, now headed by Sonia Gandhi. As Hindustan Times, one of India’s leading English dailies said, “S ince the party (DMK) has previously supported disinvestment as a matter of policy, it was simply a matter of cynical political calculation.”
The prime minister’s main handicap is that he has neither a political base nor an electoral constituency. He owes his office to a sacrifice drama Sonia Gandhi had staged at the time of government formation in 2004. Ms Gandhi in many ways resembles and imitates her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi who never allowed any of her party men or ministerial colleagues to overshadow her. For two reasons Sonia Gandhi has an iron grip over power: One is the age-old culture of sycophancy in her party and two is the tradition of opportunism that is the hallmark of the country’s coalition politics today. DMK is a party that feasted on loaves of office in the previous government headed by Atal Behari Vajpayee.
A plan to shed government stake even in profit-making public sector units is the heart of the prime minister’s liberalization and privatization programme. Suspending this programme is a personal setback to the reforms man. Every time he tried to translate the plan, he had to retreat under threat from a Leftist alliance that supports the government but is not a part of it. As the government went ahead this week with its plan to divest 10 per cent of its holdings in the Nyeveli company, the DMK threatened to quit the government forcing it to put the plan on the backburner.
Manmohan Singh’s only success in his economic reform came last month when he raised oil prices in the face of stiff opposition after rolling them back several times earlier. In hindsight, this gain seems to be transient. In the words of Business standard, “This government is therefore like a creature with two heads and several tails; each tail knows how to wag the body.” In the end, Manmohan Singh put on hold all disinvestment plans after a telephone call from Sonia. Whenever there is popular backlash, she smartly distances herself from the government. Dr. Singh’s position today is like “the boy (who)q1 stood on the burning deck.”
He has not been able to outlive the smear that he is a nominee of Ms. Gandhi and does her bidding. Nor had she done anything to dispel that public perception. In the two years of his office, several of his cabinet colleagues declared independence and took decisions over his turbaned head. Railway minister Lalu Prasad Yadav set up his own committee, parallel to a high-powered commission, to probe the arson on Godhra Express in which 50 persons were burnt alive. Human resources development minister Arjun Singh announced a rise in the share of seats for a section of the people known as other backward classes. This led to a first class crisis that nearly brought down the government.
The latest to declare independence is the minister for health Ambumani Ramadoss who sacked the director of the country’s most prestigious medical institution, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. Ramadoss represents a small party from the south that enjoys the support of the other backward classes. As a result, emergency wards in several state hospitals shut down services. The Supreme Court stayed the dismissal of the director adding to the discomfiture of the government. In all these travails, not only Ms. Gandhi failed to come to the prime minister’s aid but embarrassed him by convening a party meet that ragged him on rising prices.
The faultlines of the government are built into the coalition structures. First, the Congress is in office solely due to the accident of winning seven more seats than the BJP. Sonia Gandhi heads the Congress party and the party heads the present coalition of disparate political outfits who are constantly sparring with each other and with the Congress party. While the Leftists lend support to the government in their anxiety to keep the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) out of power, the other coalition partners continue in the coalition to share the spoils of office and blackmail the government in times of crisis. The leftists threats have lost their steam because of repetition.
There are differences between the Congress and its allies on disinvestment, on rising prices, on privatization of airports, on wheat imports, on throwing retail trade open to foreign capital, on the nuclear deal with the United States and a score of other issues. These differences are weapons in the hands of the allies to wrench from the government concessions that upset budgetary balances. What keeps the coalition going is the readiness of the Congress party to submit to the blackmail of its allies.
As the Asian Age says, “The writing on the wall is clear.” Coalition partners have become strident and the DMK defiance is bound to encourage other minor allies to do the same and the Congress is bound to come under increased pressure to cave in to their demands. Irrespective of the merits of disinvestment, its suspension is bound to choke the inflow of foreign capital so essential for the success of the reform programme.
Manmohan Singh’s writ does not run any more in the bizarre unprincipled politics of the country. One threat from him to quit will show the solidity of the government. As a spokesman for the main opposition party says there is a complete party paralysis. In short, this government is in the ICU (intensive care unit) where it is likely to return every time it is discharged.
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