As government battles to survive, friends and foes switch sides

July 16th, 2008 - 1:44 pm ICT by IANS  

A file-photo of Manmohan Singh

By M.R. Narayan Swamy
New Delhi, July 16 (IANS) Long-time friends are turning foes and once bitter enemies find themselves on the same side as the Congress-led government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh prepares to survive a determined opposition bid to dislodge it over the India-US nuclear deal. With barely a week left for the July 22 trust vote in the 545-seat Lok Sabha, both the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the disparate opposition are locked in a numbers game that will determine whether or not Manmohan Singh remains the prime minister.

Every day, indeed every hour, party managers armed with names of MPs and calculators are busy tabulating if they can reach up to 272 - the magic number in the Lok Sabha needed to govern the world’s largest democracy.

The Congress, which heads the multi-party UPA, says it is confident of retaining power despite losing the support last week of 59 MPs from four Left parties that sustained the government for over four years. But the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) says it is equally confident that the government will fall July 22.

The rapid developments over the past week have left even seasoned politicians dazed as the bizarre kaleidoscope called Indian politics has taken colours and shapes never seen before.

After four years of hesitant romance, the Left has ditched the Congress. But most long-standing allies of the Left, which is led by ‘big brother’ Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), have refused to sail with it although they are careful not to offend it.

The Samajwadi Party, which for years counted the Left as an ideological ally, is suddenly seeing virtues in the Congress. But only in 1999, it single-handedly prevented Congress president Sonia Gandhi from becoming prime minister after a similar parliament trust vote.

Stung by the Samajwadi Party’s U-turn - the party had taken part in mass protests against US President George W. Bush and the nuclear deal not long ago - the Marxists have befriended Uttar Pradesh’s ruling Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the unforgiving foe of the Samajwadi Party.

The BJP has decided to vote against the nuclear deal, a decision that has put it on the side of the CPI-M, a party it has always loved to hate. There is no doubt that both the parties are more than embarrassed - and the Congress is using their common agenda to run them down.

The Akali Dal, although with the BJP, is reportedly toying with the idea of backing Manmohan Singh because he is India’s first Sikh prime minister. The government is also reportedly wooing the Shiv Sena, which too is in the BJP camp, with help from an industrial house. Officially, the Akalis and the Shiv Sena have denied the reports.

At least one party, the MDMK, has split. Its leader Vaiko called for a vote against the nuclear deal. Two of his three other MPs promptly defied him.

The BJP says the Congress-led UPA has only 250 MPs on its side. The UPA says it has at least 276. Some political analysts feel it will be “a 50:50 affair” - so close will be the outcome. One Congress source told IANS: “We will win but it won’t be as easy as we thought.”

Aware of their sudden importance in the larger scheme of things, small parties in parliament - even those with one or two MPs - are flexing their muscles. In the corridors of power, stories abound “demands” they are making.

The Samajwadi Party is openly asking for the head of Petroleum Minister Murli Deora, who according to it is on the side of an industrialist they detest. The Telangana Rashtra Samiti wants New Delhi to concede a Telangana state in return for the support of its three MPs. But one of its MPs has already turned a rebel.

Even the otherwise monolithic CPI-M is witnessing fissures. Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee, a key MP from the CPI-M, is reportedly unhappy that he will be on the side of the BJP on the nuclear issue. Another CPI-M stalwart shares his anguish.

Many of the MPs privately admit they have no idea what the India-US nuclear deal is all about. Even some of the worst critics of the Left and BJP admit that the leaders of only these two parties - apart from the Congress - seem to know the subject.

It is these MPs who will decide if the nuclear deal gone politically wrong is good for India or not.

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