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In Fits And False Starts

UF constituents squabble over policy matters, but there's no immediate danger to the coalition

In Fits And False Starts
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THE fact that problems within the ruling coalition were expected provided little solace for United Front constituents when the troubles actually erupted. In rapid succession at that. The first to cross the rubicon was the Front's main constituent, the Janata Dal. The consequences of the expulsion of senior JD leader Ramakrishna Hegde (see box) and the sop to the hawala-tainted Sharad Yadav, who was handed out the post of working president, are still unfolding.

Then Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram and the Left parties indulged in a slanging match on the issue of cuts in government expenditure. And in a matter of days, the jitters could be felt again as Congress chief Narasimha Rao said his party had not contracted to provide "blind support" to the UF Government even as the CBI dragnet in the urea scam seemed to close in on members of his family.

When the avowedly pro-liberalisation Chidambaram announced austerity measures to curb government expenditure on June 17, the thought that he was doing something out of the ordinary probably did not cross his mind. It should have, assert nearly all other UF constituents. According to a senior UF leader, "Chidambaram seems to have let his reformist zeal get the better of his political discretion." The Left parties made clear their displeasure at this "unilateral decision against the spirit of the Common Minimum Programme (CMP)".

Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda and his Cabinet colleagues, too, were unhappy that they had not been informed about this "policy decision" and reportedly told Chidambaram as much. Gowda, according to sources close to him, told Chidambaram "politely but firmly" that the finance minister could not forget the compulsions of coalition politics, and should not make any policy announcements till the Cabinet had discussed the issues involved.

In the face of a sustained onslaught from the Left over the next two days, the finance minister beat a hasty, if tactical, retreat. He clarified that job security wouldnot be affected and that the recommendations of the Fifth Pay Commission would be implemented in full. And representatives of prominent Left-allied trade unions who met Chidambaram on June 21 said he had assured them that there would be no wage freeze. The trade unions are scheduled to meet the Prime Minister next, and they intend to raise the issue of the "wrong signals" sent out by Chidambaram.

The suggestion, however, that this controversy is the beginning of the end of the UF Government seems premature. But neither can the reaction of UF spokesman Jaipal Reddy—"the fact that political and ideological checks are built into the coalition is its forte, not its Achilles' heel"—be taken without a pinch of salt.

Says a key UF leader, who has been instrumental in formulating the CMP: "While Chidambaram's reformist ardour may have been dampened for the moment, it is he who will formulate the Budget. And while the Left and even a section of the JD will naturally protest and some concessions will have to be granted, I doubt whether these ideological differences over economic policy will lead to the end of the coalition. In fact, the point of having a CMP short on details was that when the time comes for contentious policies to be implemented, a compromise will be hammered out."

Prominent trade unionist and CPI leader A.B. Bardhan seemed to indicate as much when he said that while he welcomed the formation of the UF Government, the trade unions would continue to protest against "certain policies". And that he was "satisfied" with the clarification issued by the finance minister.

But as soon as this hiccup subsided, another hitch appeared. On June 19, Narasimha Rao, on a tour of his constituency Behrampore, indicated that even the "unconditional support" promised by the Congress to the UF could be conditional. And the fact that his speech, distancing the Congress from "blindly supporting" the ruling coalition, came a day after the arrests of Rao's kin B. Sanjeeva Rao and former Union minister Ram Lakhan Singh Yadav's son Prakash Yadav, with the former prime minister's son seemingly next in line, led to more palpitation in the UF. But on reflec-tion, the UF leadership realised that even if the timing of the statement was deliberate (and there is no evidence to prove that), whatever the end result of the urea scandal, they stand to gain rather than lose. Even when it comes to Congress support.

And then there is the Laloo Prasad Yadav-sponsored 'mollification drive' vis-a-vis Sharad Yadav, which culminated on June 16, with the latter's elevation in the party hierarchy. Gowda was in no position to oppose the move despite a degree of pressure on him by colleagues and "reservations" expressed by the Left, in particular. The clout Sharad Yadav will wield as working president is considerable. And with assembly elections coming up in Uttar Pradesh, a section of the JD, Mulayam Singh Yadav and the Left parties are worried.

A senior JD leader admitted that with Sharad Yadav's known preference for a tie-up with the BSP (even if its alliance with the Congress goes through) may upset the delicate task the Left parties have undertaken: of convincing Mulayam Yadav that if both he and Mayawati insist on being candidates for chief minister and decide to fight the elections separately, the BJP will be in power. "He cannot stymie any decision the leadership takes, but he does have nuisance value which will only increase with his higher profile in the party." Sharad Yadav's known antipathy towards the Left parties and the role they played in his being denied a Cabinet berth is only expected to exacerbate matters.

Welcome to the 'brave new world' of coalition politics. 

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