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The only important number is 5
T V R Shenoy
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July 18, 2008
"The magic figure in the Lok Sabha is 273!"

"The price of an MP's vote is Rs 25 crore!"

"It will all come down to Deve Gowda's three MPs!"

The media are choking over numbers. But the Congress's managers know the only important number is 5.

What do Congressmen want, five assured months in office before the general election is called or the possibility of being re-elected for another five-year term? The question has revealed the disconnect between the leaders and the led for all to see, in the CPI-M as well as the Congress.

The Congress 'high command' may think it is worth courting humiliation for five months, some Congress MPs wonder if they aren't risking all future prospects of five years in Parliament. As for the CPI-M, it is divided between a leadership that thinks the greater enemy is "imperialism" (the United States), and a section insisting that "communalism" (the BJP) is Enemy Number One.

Assume for argument's sake that the Congress wins the vote in the House come Tuesday evening. It is what happens next that worries some Congressmen.

The prime minister, having staked his government on the issue, is honour bound to stay on until negotiations are completed with the US Congress, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The Speaker of the US House of Representatives has already declared that there will be no lame-duck session after the American elections in November. In effect, this gives Dr Manmohan Singh [Images] fewer than three months to get the deal through, followed by the call for a general election in India that shall take at least two months, campaigning and all.

This is the five months in office that I speak of. And for every day of those five months Congressmen shall be tormented by their allies.

The Samajwadi Party general secretary may not get the Union petroleum minister's head (which he demanded openly), but can the Congress resist letting him have his way with, say, the petroleum secretary?

The benefits of winning over such 'allies' will be limited to five months; the damages will stretch long into the future. In 1971, Indira Gandhi [Images] cut a deal with M Karunanidhi for an electoral alliance in Tamil Nadu, and the Congress has not recovered in the state since that day. The price of Tamil Nadu's 39 Lok Sabha seats has been 37 years away from Fort St George -- with many more to come I am sure.

Indira Gandhi is long gone but Karunanidhi is still around, and has spent the last two years humiliating the Congress in Tamil Nadu though the DMK lacks a majority in the assembly and depends on Congress votes. The Congress now faces the prospect of eating crow not just in Tamil Nadu but in every state.

Are Congressmen prepared to back the nuclear deal by playing second fiddle to Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh? And to Shibu Soren in Jharkhand? Or, possibly, even to H D Deve Gowda in Karnataka? (They have, of course, already conceded the whip hand in Bihar to Lalu Prasad Yadav and to Sharad Pawar [Images] in Maharashtra.)

Some Congressmen are beginning to strain at the leash. What, they wonder, is the point of working for a party where the high command is prepared to sacrifice state leaders' ambitions for the illusion of power in Delhi? Disillusioned rumblings can already be heard from Karnataka but they shall be neither the last nor the loudest.

The true challenge facing the Congress managers in the next one hundred hours is not wangling 271 votes in the House. No, their true task is convincing Congressmen themselves that there is still a possibility of winning five years in power after five months of humiliation.

The greatest price of all may be paid by the man who plunged his party into the crisis, Dr Manmohan Singh, who came to office with two priceless assets -- a reputation for efficiency and a record of probity. The inflation and growth numbers have shredded the claims of the "economist Prime Minister". Can the claims of being the "Mr Clean of Indian politics" survive embraces by Shibu Soren and Amar Singh? (Not to mention certain Honourable Members whose jail doors have been blasted open by the nuclear deal!)

How about the CPI-M? Somnath Chatterjee brought the "anti-imperialist" versus "anti-communalist" argument into the open when he wrote to Prakash Karat, saying he could not bring himself to vote along with "communal forces". He has also, thus far, refused to resign as Speaker, claiming the office is above party politics. Isn't this hypocritical?

First, whatever the British experience, the Indian reality is different. Isn't the current Union home minister a former Speaker of the Lok Sabha? Or do Congressmen now wish to argue that being a Cabinet minister is somehow apolitical? (I say nothing of Dr Manmohan Singh inducting a former Chief Election Commissioner!)

Second, the CPI-M has a tradition of levying a fee on its members, asking all its MPs to give part of their salary to the party . Did Somnath Chatterjee stop paying when he was elected Speaker? Let us have the records.

Third, didn't Somnath Chatterjee betray himself when he wrote to the CPI-M general secretary? In what capacity did he do so, as Speaker or as a CPI-M member?

What if the motion in the Lok Sabha ends in a tie? That leaves the Speaker with the casting vote. The British traditions that Somnath Chatterjee now embraces say the Speaker votes with the Treasury benches on the first go, but with the Opposition if it goes to a second round. Which way will our Honourable Speaker lean?

The numbers game will make the headlines for a few days more. But it is the increasing differences in perception between the leadership and the party workers in both the Congress and the CPI-M that will have longer-lasting repercussions. That is the true story, and it won't end on Tuesday.

Tailpiece: Why do commentators, on every channel, insist on saying "very crucial" and "very vital" when they mean 'very important'? An issue is either 'crucial' or it is not, describing something as "very crucial" is an assault on the language!

T V R Shenoy
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