Thursday, 19 May, 2022
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UPA needs an MBA (Coalition)

Congress can legitimately claim it’s been too busy putting the government together, but it cannot carry on by giving an impression that the Left is being excluded, ignored or taken for granted.

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Sonia Gandhi has probably not forgotten her favourite line on the NDA. This government, she used to say, will fall under the weight of its own contradictions. This looked a pretty reasonable prognosis. Except that the NDA defied the odds to not only carry on for its full term but to begin looking so much like a BJP government that you sometimes even forgot this was a coalition. Today, the BJP people use similar words to predict the UPA’s fate. Do Sonia, Manmohan Singh and their partners also have it in them to prove the BJP wrong?

There are days when you’d be persuaded to believe that it is highly unlikely. As it is this Friday, with Sitaram Yechury threatening to follow up his bark with a killer bite. There are, however, also days when you’d think this coalition is there to stay, that unlike Vajpayee’s NDA, this is bonded together with a much stronger ideological glue. Isn’t that what you would have thought between, say, May 14 and the swearing-in as scenes of devotion, bonding and bonhomie unfolded on your television screens? If you look back at newspaper clips of those heady days just two months back, the seniormost leaders of the Left, while underlining the contradictions with the Congress on economic policies, said one thing quite unambiguously: that withdrawing support was not an option. So what has changed in these six weeks? Has the UPA lost the plot? What is causing this impatience? And, finally, is there something Sonia and her party can learn from the way Vajpayee and his NDA survived?

The NDA’s major achievement was learning the art of coalition management. It survived many tough situations internally and externally and, by the end of the day, looked stronger. Sure, the BJP had larger numbers and the coalition was not dependent on any snappy “watchdog” sitting impatiently on the fence. But it also succeeded because it accepted the fact of coalition politics early on and worked on managing the contradictions that could easily have pulled it down.

Also read: Five lessons for Rahul Gandhi from what Machiavelli said 500 years ago

In politics, as in life in general, most contradictions arise not so much from ideology and faith as from vested (not necessarily illegitimate) interests and personal egos. This requires visible accommodation. Which is why George Fernandes’s appointment as the NDA convenor was a smart move. The last cabinet too was BJP-dominated. But it gave the impression that the partners were empowered. Fernandes was present in all the group photos with Vajpayee, Advani, Jaswant, Sinha and Joshi. Shiv Sena was the snappiest partner in that coalition. It publicly criticised NDA policies, from FDI and disinvestment to its foreign policy, even the decision to play cricket with Pakistan. But Vajpayee personally took charge of that relationship. He called Thackeray often and, when in Mumbai, had a meeting or a meal with him. There were frequent visits by the BJP top brass to meet Thackeray to “brief” and assuage him. These were allowed wide media coverage. Even Arun Shourie was sent to meet him to explain the rationale behind disinvestment. The result was that the only people in the NDA Thackeray destabilised were his own party’s ministers.

It may be a bit much to expect a man as decent and apolitical as Manmohan Singh to do all of this, though if he has to be remembered as a successful prime minister who left a legacy of doing some good for a billion people, he must learn to do some of it. But more than he, in this case, Sonia will have to use the moral authority that is all her own as a consequence of her astute renunciation. She also has to be the key political leader of the show if she has to provide the functional space her prime minister needs. For more than a month now Sonia has been out of the limelight, off our front pages and TV screens. It is possible that this is merely her way of responding to charges and apprehensions that she will be the real power and her prime minister a mere figurehead. She has to reflect if she has over-corrected. If her coalition is to survive the formidable weight of its own contradictions, she has to be at the centre-stage of politics, doing a bit of what Vajpayee did, as well as a lot of what Advani did by way of political networking and management.

It is far too tempting at this point not to mention what was, after all, an informal late-night phone call from Vajpayee in the week my interview with Sonia Gandhi on NDTV’s Walk the Talk was telecast. After pulling my leg in his typical half-jest for not having defended him from Sonia’s criticisms, he zeroed in on one point: Sonia accusing him of bending under pressure from his ministers and allies much too often. “Does she know what it is to manage a coalition? Has she ever run a coalition?” Vajpayee asked. Then, after a trademark pause, he elaborated: “Running a coalition is all about managing contradictions. You have to be flexible.”

Also read: Why Sonia, Priyanka and Rahul Gandhi have not said a word on Yogi govt’s ‘love jihad’ law

Now that is certainly a good lesson to learn from somebody who was able to hold a 25-party mob together for a full term. But what you could add to that idea of reasonable compromise, is fleet-footedness, networking, massaging of egos and accommodation that could be personal, symbolic as also substantive. Whatever the hesitations of the Left in joining the government, for example, some space could have been provided to its leadership in bodies like the Planning Commission, a proper consultative mechanism should have been set up much earlier, there could be more frequent meetings, even pilgrimages by key Congress leaders to see Surjeet and even Jyoti Basu and Buddhadeb in Kolkata. While the Congress can legitimately claim it’s been far too busy putting the government together, its leadership cannot carry on by giving a public impression that the Left is being excluded, ignored or taken for granted. They do not have to submit to most of the Left’s wishes. But it must engage in dialogue with them more openly on key issues.

And, who knows, sometimes the Left may have some good ideas too. Buddhadeb has a few things to say on public-private partnership. Yechury himself has interesting views on reforming the PSUs and making them more competitive. He, for example, has been questioning the practice of IAS officers being appointed to head these corporations. Now that isn’t very different from what most reformers would want. So why is somebody not engaging with him on ideas on reforming the PSUs while you continue the argument over privatisation? It is difficult to believe that the leadership of the Left is so short-sighted as to question every reformist move this government makes. But wouldn’t they feel ‘ and look ‘ better if it was made to seem as if they were in the loop, were being consulted and kept informed even if their views were not always accepted?

This is where the NDA succeeded and, in fact, the only discordant voices it faced was from within the sangh parivar. This is exactly where the earlier anti-BJP coalitions failed with both Gowda and Gujral giving their outside supporters, the Congress, the impression of being ignored or taken for granted. Now, Sitaram Yechury may not suffer from the same insecurities as his much older namesake (Kesri). But deep down, it hurts to be made to look unwanted, ignored, kept out of the loop. This is where Sonia needs to step in.

Also read: Insecurity within


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