Loyalties shift with the wind

A vote of confidence in India's Congress-led coalition yesterday saw sworn enemies become firm allies.
Congress party activists celebrate and wave an Indian National Congress flag, after the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government won the vote of confidence.
Congress party activists celebrate and wave an Indian National Congress flag, after the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government won the vote of confidence.

NEW DELHI // A vote of confidence in India's Congress-led coalition yesterday saw sworn enemies become firm allies as political players kept their eye on general elections due by the first quarter of next year. The government narrowly survived the vote which had been initially delayed by allegations of vote buying.

"All of India's political parties were the same. Their only aim is to come to power and stay there," said Salim Sherwani, an MP from the Bahujan Samaj Party, which represents India's dalits, or low castes. The BSP previously had a bitter, adversarial relation with the Congress Party, but changed its tune after the Left withdrew its support for the coalition this month over a civil nuclear deal the government was pushing with the United States.

So tight was yesterday's ballot expected to be that the government temporarily released six MPs serving jail terms to permit them to vote. An equally frantic opposition, led by the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party, the BJP, chartered air ambulances and special planes to ferry in ailing lawmakers to support their mandate, including one recovering from heart bypass surgery and another from a knee replacement operation in the United States.

"All MPs and their parties were looking to the forthcoming elections and planning strategies on how to leverage their chances at the hustings," said Ajit Singh, head of the three MP-strong Rashtiya Lok Dal, or National People's Party. He said Congress was even persuaded to rename Lucknow airport, north of New Delhi, after his father, Charan Singh, who was briefly prime minister in the early 1980s, as a precondition to supporting the party in parliament.

But a day later, Ajit Singh switched allegiance to the "more electable" BSP. "It's only about elections," he said even though he is believed to have once favoured the US atomic pact. The government needed 272 votes in the 541-seat parliament, and came away with 275, according to an official tally. "Political ideology in India has ceased to exist. It has been replaced by political expediency, opportunism and thuggery in which only money matters," Kuldip Nayar, a former independent MP and national affairs commentator, said.

Every party, he said, was seeking power and little else. "Coalitions will dominate Indian politics for many years to come as no single party or small grouping is capable of securing the mandate like in the past," said Dorab Sopariwala, who specialises in election forecasting. "Coalitions make every MP relevant," the psephologist said. Pre-election alliances are usually a reliable signpost for who will win an election, he said, but this time round it would be difficult, if not impossible, to make any credible projection for elections due by April.

But most analysts were agreed that the two pivots around which most coalitions would coalesce were the 123-year-old Congress-led alliance and the grouping led by the opposition Hindu nationalists BJP that it ousted from power after the 2004 elections. Both have led administrations that comprised an average of around 20 parties, some of which only had as few as one or two MPs. The most radical of these parties has been the BSP, led by Mayawati Kumari, a dalit. The party has been on the ascent since it burst onto the political scene last year by securing the mandate in northern Uttar Pradesh state, the country's most populous province.

Ms Kumari, who prefers to be known as Mayawati, pulled off an unexpected landslide victory by stringing together an all-caste "rainbow coalition", making her the leader of the first majority government in 14 years in the province of more than 180 million people. If independent, Uttar Pradesh state would be the world's seventh largest country. In 2005, she described herself as a "living goddess", declaring that she had never married so as "to improve the lot" of dalits.

Last week her supporters declared that she could become prime minister, an ambition analysts said was not beyond reach considering projections that her party could secure at least 50 of the state's 80 parliamentary seats. Over decades any political party that has dominated Uttar Pradesh - like the Congress and the BJP in the past - has invariably formed the federal government. Mayawati's support base comes mostly from the low-caste dalits, for whom she has become a symbol of their dignity and political aspirations after centuries of oppression by the Hindu upper castes.

Indian politicians publicly condemn the caste system as "regressive", but since independence six decades ago, have perpetuated it by contesting elections like Mayawati did, with an eye on their voter's caste affiliations. "Caste equations eventually determine electoral outcomes in India and the forthcoming elections would be little different," Seema Mustafa, a political analyst, said. The biggest drawback is that it results in uncertainty and disruptive politics, he said.


Published: July 22, 2008 04:00 AM


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