From the editor- in- chief
The comfortable election of Pranab Mukherjee as the 13th President of India could well have lulled the Congress party into a false sense of security. But Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party ( NCP) did not give its larger ally any time to gloat. On the evening of July 19, after the votes for the presidential election had been cast, Pawar threatened, in public, to withdraw his party’s ministers from both the Union Government and the Maharashtra government. He was apparently fed up of being humiliated by the Congress. It was widely reported that Pawar was peeved at having been denied the seat occupied by the Government’s Number 2 to the Prime Minister’s right in Cabinet meetings. Congress chose Defence Minister A. K. Antony to replace Pranab Mukherjee in that chair.
But Pawar’s rebellion was about much more than a preferred seat at Cabinet meetings. A veteran politician, Pawar knows only too well that as agriculture minister for the last eight years, he has been deliberately kept out of the big four in Cabinet— finance, home, defence and external affairs. With just 11 and 9 MPs in UPA 1 and UPA 2, he has not had much bargaining power at the Centre. He has in fact been the Congress’s most loyal ally, never throwing a tantrum and supporting many of the more controversial policies of Manmohan Singh’s Government, including the nuclear deal and greater foreign investment.
So, what has altered? The Congress has hardly changed its attitude towards allies. It has largely ignored them in decision- making, only to bow down before an orchestrated tantrum. The real change is that the Congress is greatly weakened after eight years in office. Corruption has taken a toll. Policy paralysis has taken a firm grip. There is a leadership crisis at the top. Manmohan is at the end of his innings. Rahul Gandhi’s continued ambivalence makes the future uncertain. The wily Pawar has chosen this moment to assert himself. He has rebelled in similar circumstances in the past. He left the Congress when Indira Gandhi was at her weakest after the Emergency. He left the Congress when Sonia Gandhi was struggling to assert control in 1999.
Pawar knows that most of the Congress’s allies are disgruntled. Two days after his rebellion, Mamata Banerjee told a rally in Bengal that she would contest the next elections alone. A couple of days later, Mulayam Singh Yadav, the Congress’s newest ally, together with the Left parties and the JD( S) wrote a letter to the Prime Minister opposing FDI in retail. Pawar is positioning himself to be the leader of the opposition within the UPA. After striking a deal with the Congress to set up a formal coordination mechanism in the alliance on July 25, the NCP said it was acting on behalf of all allies. This is an opportune moment for all allies to get a better deal from Congress.
Our cover story, written by Senior Editor Priya Sahgal and Assistant Editor Kiran Tare, explores and explains the political logic behind Pawar’s manoeuvres. Pawar has an additional bargaining chip, Maharashtra, where his party’s 62 MLAs are in a coalition with the Congress’s 82 MLAs in a 288- member Assembly. Maharashtra is critical to Congress fortunes in the next general election. Maharashtra has been a UPA bastion for long— the Congress- NCP coalition has ruled the state since 1999. Pawar will not leave the UPA now, but the Congress would do well to give its allies a sense of participation in decision- making if it wants to deliver any semblance of governance over the next year and a half.
OUR NOVEMBER 2009 COVER