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Allies put pressure on Congress ahead of poll
October 13, 2008
The harassed economist prime minister might have wanted some breathing space to handle the fallout of the conflagration raging through the stock exchanges of the world. He is unlikely to get that wish.
Frankly, the root of the prime minister's problems lie with his dear allies in the United Progressive Alliance rather than with the official Opposition. With a general election around the corner -- due in six months or fewer -- senior allies have begun making a series of impossible demands.
"If the atrocities against Sri Lankan Tamils does not stop we must answer the question 'Do we need this government?"," the chief minister of Tamil Nadu thundered. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam supremo answered his own question by threatening to quit the United Progressive Alliance.
Meanwhile, the unlikely trio of Sharad Pawar [Images], Lalu Prasad Yadav [Images] and Ram Vilas Paswan separately demanded that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal be banned forthwith after the incidents in Orissa and in Karnataka. There were murmurs of Article 356 and President's Rule in both states, rumours fed to the salivating media corps.
Need I mention the Samajwadi Party and its laundry list of complaints against the Congress? How many thunderbolts has Amar Singh [Images] hurled against the Congress after he became the principal architect of its survival in the Lok Sabha back in July?
To be fair, the Samajwadi Party may actually be the most reasonable of the parties listed above. The rest of them are coming out with demands that are simply out of proportion to anything that the government can do.
The single greatest disaster of the Rajiv Gandhi years -- yes, even greater than the Bofors fiasco -- was the decision to send Indian troops into Sri Lanka [Images]. India went in as an honest broker, got involved in a war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and ended up being asked to get out by the Sinhala-dominated government in Colombo.
India committed something like 100,000 troops in the years of the Indian Peace Keeping Force. Over 1,200 were killed and several thousand more were injured. All this happened in the name of a mission whose objectives, then as now, were never clearly defined.
It was not just the Sinhalas and the Sri Lankan Tamils that ended up objecting to the IPKF operations between 1987 and 1990; they were almost as unpopular in India itself, specifically Tamil Nadu. When V P Singh replaced Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister, he came under immediate pressure from the then chief minister of Tamil Nadu to put a halt to IPKF operations, a demand with which the Janata Dal leader complied.
I have a faint memory that the Tamil Nadu chief minister stayed away from the ceremony to welcome back the returning Indian soldiers. It might not have been acknowledged as a boycott but that was the general effect at the time.
Who was the chief minister that demanded the return of the IPKF, and then ignored its return? None other than the same M Karunanidhi, who is now demanding that Indian soldiers be despatched to Sri Lanka on another futile peace-keeping exercise!
Dare I note that the DMK boss has a slightly idiosyncratic view of what constitutes a political alliance? He is not shy of demanding his fair share, and more -- of offices in the Union Cabinet. But exactly how many ministries has he doled out to his Congress allies in Fort St George? None!
The irony of all this is compounded by the facts on the grounds. The DMK has 96 seats in the Tamil Nadu assembly, well short of the halfway mark in a House that has a strength of 234. The Karunanidhi ministry stands on the 34 seats won by the Congress, the 18 seats that fell to the PMK, and the 14 MLAs belonging to the Left Front.
The DMK and the Left Front apparently parted ways over the nuclear deal. (I write 'apparently' because you never quite know in Indian politics!) The alliance with the PMK too may be over. None of this seems to matter to the octogenarian chief minister, who seems to take delight in humiliating the Congress on whom he depends for survival.
How about Messrs Sharad Pawar, Ram Vilas Paswan and Lalu Prasad Yadav? The Nationalist Congress Party, the Lok Janshakti Party, and the Rashtriya Janata Dal count for little or nothing either in Orissa or in Karnataka. Nor does the United Progressive Alliance possess the strength to win approval for President's rule in either state from Parliament.
Why then are these esteemed gentlemen piling on the pressure on Dr Manmohan Singh and his party? Very simply, it is a bargaining tactic to wrest more seats out of the Congress in the general election.
The DMK, the NCP, the LJP and the RJD would like the Congress to give something in return if they "sacrifice" their demands. The Congress -- and the Indian electorate at large -- is expected to politely ignore the fact that the demands are a load of unrealistic bunk that never had a prayer of being realised.
Call it whatever you want, a 'bargaining tactic' or, less politely, 'blackmail'. Let us just hope that the Congress does not take the demands from its 'allies' too seriously.
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