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Kanimozhi and Supriya Sule are good friends. Both daughters of powerful regional politicians—of Tamil Nadu CM M. Karunanidhi and Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar respectively—they are seen as keepers of the regional satraps’ family tradition and fortunes. Both MPs in their early forties, they casually drop in at each other’s homes in Delhi, and are often sighted taking morning walks together. Lately, they would have had a lot to bond over as both were in the midst of scandals that engulfed them and their parties. Both have remained imperious despite the charges.
“Each party has its own morality. The Congress has demonstrated high standards—but we are not judging others.”
That, indeed, is the split reality the UPA now lives with. The Congress says it maintains standards of probity, but UPA allies are very much their own bosses. So Shashi Tharoor had to quit from the council of ministers when the IPL scandal began unravelling but the big players from the NCP, Pawar and Union civil aviation minister Praful Patel, remain untouched even though they are suspected of being involved in even greater malpractice. When this correspondent told Pawar that Congress leaders grumble about allies proving to be an embarrassment, he simply retorted: “Let them say what they like!”
Similarly, Karunanidhi made it clear he has no intention of seeing telecom minister A. Raja, he of the spectrum scam, axed. His reason: “Raja is a Dalit.” Just as Parliament was recovering from the uproar caused by these scandals—including Outlook’s telephone tapping expose—a third UPA ally, Union railway minister Mamata Banerjee, remained ensconced in Calcutta, applying herself to local politics. This, while motormen went on strike in Mumbai, paralysing the nation’s financial capital for a day—another uproar in Parliament.
“By definition, everyone would like to rule on their own,” says Congress spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi. “All alliances are a compulsion. I speak for the Congress and not other political parties. Each party has its own sense of morality. The Congress has repeatedly demonstrated exemplary standards in this regard, but that does not mean we are passing judgement on the others—even by implication.”
“We can talk of abiding by certain standards, but it is for our allies to define their own positions on issues.”
In fact, as that guarded response shows, the Congress has become quite adept at managing a rather schizoid reality. It may not endorse—but does not investigate—the actions of UPA allies, while it uses fairly obvious pressure tactics to get the support of other parties. The manner in which the BSP was “managed” to give support during the cut motion in Parliament was impressive in terms of realpolitik though dodgy if judged by political morality.
On April 19, BSP chief Mayawati was exonerated in an income tax-related case. On April 21, she requested the court to ask CBI to close all the cases against her. On April 23, the attorney-general of India, G.E. Vahanvati, told the court the CBI was considering her representation. On April 27, she supported the UPA in the cut motion. On May 4, Vahanvati began to represent the Uttar Pradesh government in a case relating to some actions of the Lucknow Development Authority. Could that indicate a clear case of quid pro quo?
The case of JMM chief Shibu Soren supporting the UPA during the cut motion last week and thereby putting his government at peril is more mysterious. Congress managers say they are grateful but have no idea why Soren did so. The BJP remains dumbstruck and clueless. The BJP’s general state, that has tottered between its trying to act like a genuine opposition in the Rajya Sabha and shouting and screaming in the Lok Sabha, has also helped the Congress along. The Congress has become quite adept at mustering the support of different parties for different legislations.
“We have to pass laws with 207 MPs when the half-way mark is 272. It’s our job to persuade others to go with us.”
Union parliamentary affairs minister Pawan Bansal calls it duty: “The fact is the government has to pass legislation when the Congress has just 207 members and the halfway mark is 272.” So, from time to time, he says, “we try to persuade other parties to support our policies. It is our job and responsibility to do so.” The cut motion, he says, reflected “poor judgement” on part of the BJP. “They were misled into believing that critique of the UPA by some parties meant support for the BJP. Some people in the BJP possibly even thought they could dislodge this government.”
The Congress certainly won that round with ease, but the UPA was not looking that triumphant as the budget session closed on May 7. As scandal after scandal erupted and MPs indulged in name-calling, much of the “higher purpose” social legislation being promoted by the Congress was forgotten. Congress spokesperson Manish Tiwari says, “We are conducting politics on the basis of a given reality. Everything has to be seen in context. We can talk of applying certain standards, but it is for the allies to take positions. And every scandal is not as big as is made out in the age of 24x7 TV.”
Actually, the reality is that regional parties operate by a different set of rules. The NCP sees nothing wrong in any of its actions. “We all know brazen fiscal abuse is not an aberration for the NCP,” says a senior Congress leader. “They see it as the perks and privileges of office. What they do get upset about is getting caught.” Then there is the dmk, which really does not care about the spectrum scam since the minister involved is now reportedly the biggest contributor to the party coffers. And in recent years, their politics has consisted of distributing TV sets and free rice. As for Mamata Banerjee, she has never pretended to be concerned with anything beyond Calcutta and the nitty-gritty of West Bengal politics. And Mayawati simply does not care what the media says about her. She wins in spite of numerous corruption cases, scandals, statues and public campaigns.
It is the national parties who have thin skins in such matters. They care about their national profile. The Congress has become quite adept at management. But the next level of politics has to be about purpose and even some idealism.