PRIME MINISTER H.D. Deve Gowda has made clear his keenness to establish a rapport with Congress President Sitaram Kesri and avoid the pinpricks that have plagued United Front-Congress relations. On January 27 when he met Congress leader K. Karunakaran, he emphasised that the sparring and sniping was undermining governance. And though polite as ever, Gowda did indicate that the option to join the government or withdraw support was there for the Congress, say UF sources. Late at night on January 30, when the two met again, the message was reinforced.
Front leaders point out that it is nobodys argument that Gowda has overnight turned the drawback of being dependent on the Congress to his advantage. But the mood of the Front constituents and Deve Gowda himself for all his politeness, is that the UF is willing to be pushed only to a point by Sitaram Kesri.
"The meetings only confirm what all of us have known for some time now. That the Congress realises we wont just roll over and let them form a government. They will have to face a general election to come to power. Or, of course, join us," says a senior UF leader. The Congress leadership does not seem keen on either of the two options, at the moment.
That is what has given the current debate over the state of Congress-UF relations a new twist. The worm has started showing signs of turning. "Of course it is only a temporary phenomenon; Kesri is moving to get his party ready for a mid-term poll but that is not going to happen immediately. Therefore, the threat from the Congress in the short-term is nil," is the assessment of a senior Janata Dal leader.
That seems to be the key for the UF: to concentrate on facing the next elections together and thereby emerge as a genuine "third force" in the country. This sentiment was expressed forcefully by a core group of UF leaders at a breakfast meeting in the capital on January 16, following the last steering committee meeting. Since then, events have moved at a fast pace. According to senior TMC leader and Union Minister S.R. Balasubramanium: "Hence forth, it will be state-level parties with a national outlook which will determine the course of governance. Senior Congress leaders realise that withdrawing support at this juncture will harm their own party. I do not expect such a move from them."
The rationale for joining the UF for a majority of its constituents was that the communal forces represented by the BJP had to be kept out. "But the imperatives of governance have brought us to a situation where this has become only one of the aims," a senior Left leader told Outlook. "There are differences between the constituents on certain issues and the fact is that in a federal alliance there is going to be a dichotomy of interests one at the state level and the other at the Centre. But it has been accepted by all of us that though the UF is no bed of roses, we will continue."
So, problems remain: what to do if Laloo Prasad Yadav is chargesheeted, the Lefts differences over economic policy, losing Mulayam Singh Yadav to the Congress. Nevertheless, the UF is sending out a message to Kesri: two can play the game. At one level, individual constituents are not averse to state-level alliances with the Congress on the principle of guarding secularism, especially if there are tangible electoral gains to be had. At another, Kesris attempts to wean away sizeable chunks of the UF have suffered a setback because all prospective allies have realised that they are better off within the Front.
Take TMC supremo G.K. Moopanars statement that the Congress should join the Government to provide greater stability. TMC sources say Moopanar was under pressure from his erstwhile colleagues in the Congress to merge his party with the parent organisation. Something that its cadres will just not allow at present and which Moopanar himself, having tasted independence, is not too keen on. So, Moopanar did the next best thing: he put the ball back in the Congress court by inviting them to join the Government. Adding to the glee of Gowdas managers, including C.M. Ibrahim. And prompting Congress leader A.K. Antony to clarify that it was not an option and that there was no immediate danger of the Congress withdrawing support. Sharad Pawar and Karunakaran also ruled out joining the Government; it would be the antithesis of Kesris plans if the Congress were to accept the leadership of another.
The DMK too is keen that the present dispensation is not disturbed. At a meeting of the party executive last fortnight, the issue was discussed and the consensus was that any move by the Congress to destabilise the Government would boomerang. Senior leaders, including Murasoli Maran, are clear that they will not help the Congress form a government at the Centre as long as the UF option is there. "The accent is on collective rule at the Centre and self-rule by regional parties at the state-level," says a leader in Madras.
SAMAJWADI Party General Secretary Amar Singh, who is handling the attempt by party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav to rope in Congress support to form a government in Uttar Pradesh, says it like it is: "The UF is a long-term coalition of various parties which have a strong support base in various regions of the country and a principled commitment to secularism. Chandrababu Naidu, Mulayam, the DMK, Laloo Prasad Yadav, the CPI(M) and even Deve Gowda are all strong regional powers who have come together."
According to him, "even if the Congress agrees to support us in Uttar Pradesh, it doesnt change the equation of my party with the UF. Why shouldnt we, if it suits us and marginalises an anti-secular force such as the BSP? After all, the Congress is supporting the UF at the Centre and the CPI has an informal arrangement with the Congress in Punjab. One must not forget that there are many points of view in the Congress."
Front leaders also believe that the coalition will survive attempts by the Kesri-led Congress to wean away some support because the support-base of north Indian leaders like Mulayam and Laloo is the OBC-Muslim coalition which, while amenable to tactical alliances of the type suggested by Amar Singh, will not tolerate a deal with the Congress. "Since 1967, the OBCs have been anti-Congress and these leaders will not risk losing their core support," says a UF ideologue.
Significantly, other constituents of the Front like the CPI(M), the TDP and the AGP, which remain implacable foes of the Congress, are showing the maturity required to run such a coalition by not kicking up a fuss over any individual deals other constituents may be considering. In fact, the AGP and the TDP have been weaned on anti-Congressism and see the Front as the ideal coalition to protect their states interests and yet have a stake in the running of the country. Says Assam Chief Minister P.K. Mahanta: "Earlier, the region was neglected. But after the UF came to power, the Centre has started paying more attention to the problems of the state. We had to agitate for things such as a bridge over the Brahmaputra and a tiny oil refinery. Not anymore. While there are bound to be problems in an arrangement such as this, the UF will last beyond most expectations. " Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu is equally bullish: "I shall continue to try and unite the coalition partners. We are confident we can face the electorate together."
"We have decided after eight months of working together to set up an office for the UF. That should be enough of an indicator of our plans for the future," is how CPI General Secretary A.B. Bardhan puts it. Jyoti Basu rekindling the debate over whether the CPI(M) should join the Government is also a tacit admission of the fact that there is likely to be a next time for the UF and the CPI(M) should join the government if such an opportunity arises.
Most coalition members agree that the only way the Congress can make inroads and think of breaking the coalition is if it does much better than all the Fronts constituents put together in the next Lok Sabha polls. The onus, thus, is on individual UF constituents to do well enough to emerge as a collective force, once again.