"There is PM, S(uper)PM and CPM."
—Leader of Opposition L.K. Advani
The former deputy prime minister's pithy and derisive comment about the multiple power centres in the ruling UPA coalition may have sounded prophetic when Manmohan Singh took charge. But going by the initial performance of the new government, one can't help but think that Advani's one-liner sounds more petty, less prophetic. For the moment, anyway.
Although the Congress-led UPA has barely completed 50 days in office, the wheels of government seem to be turning smoothly. This, despite the fact that contradictions are inherent in coalitions because of the diversity of interests and representation. Also, the Left parties, which are supporting the UPA from the outside, have been bristly and vocal, making the management of contradictions challenging, if not difficult, for the Congress. And, of course, speculation about the emergence of Sonia Gandhi as a super-PM continues, even though there is no clear evidence of an interfering, extra-constitutional power centre. So, is the Congress—which has only run the show before as a single party at the Centre—swiftly mastering the art of running a coalition government?
"Being out of power for six years has awakened the Congress to a new accommodative demeanour," says Ashutosh Varshney, professor of political science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. According to Varshney, this accommodative approach—a result, no doubt, of the 'herd instinct' discovered by the Congress high command during the Shimla conclave in July 2003—has created an equilibrium within the UPA, where the expectations of the allies and the Left parties can be negotiated. "Disagreements, when they have arisen, have been grounded in arguments, and can therefore be settled with grace," he adds.
In fact, the Congress' immediate allies admit to being satisfied so far with the party's conduct within the UPA coalition. Says senior NCP leader and civil aviation minister Praful Patel: "The Congress has accepted that it needs the support of its allies to run the government and it has responded well. Therefore, the UPA is functioning fine." He adds that the Congress-NCP pre-poll alliance has greatly helped in making the parties "considerate towards each other". In other words, the Congress did bow to the logic of coalition politics: where a portfolio of choice was not given out to a particular ally, the number of ministerial berths offered was increased.
The allies also laud the CMP as by and large a clear and focused document that leaves little room for misunderstandings. "All parties have pledged to work by the objectives enshrined in the CMP. It is the document we will refer to in case of differences," says the RJD's Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, Union minister for rural development. To be sure, there have arisen instances where this hasn't sufficed. The FDI cap hike, for example, which the CMP was suitably vague on—almost as if in anticipation of discord. Still, the Left is moderately satisfied with the Congress' tendency to consult them on various issues before decisions are taken.
"There is an effort by the Congress to bring transparency in consultation, to maintain a flow of information and an exchange of ideas," says CPI secretary Atul Kumar Anjan. However, they argue that it's not enough. "There are consultations, but not enough dialogue. It's good that we've been sounded out on different issues but it has to go beyond this to the real ironing out of differences," points out senior CPI(M) leader Nilotpal Basu. Keeping this in mind, the Left's coordination committee has sought a separate consultative mechanism with the UPA to discuss CMP implementation.
The Congress' message of a new live-and-let-live politics also has its medium in the person of the prime minister.Manmohan Singh is seen by allies as conciliatory and accessible, which can only make the PM's tightrope walk seem less of an ordeal. Moreover, fears of a parallel power centre led by Sonia Gandhi and the Opposition's allegations of dynastic politics appear to have been stemmed effectively. "The Congress seems to be a little more conscious about the constitutional proprieties of two power centres," says Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president-designate, Centre for Policy Research (CPR). "There's none of the I-shall-see-all-the-files stuff." Adds Varshney: "As long as 10, Janpath is seen to concentrate on party organisation and leaves the task of policy and governance to 7, Race Course Road, the contradiction between the power centres can be neutralised." However, he warns that any interference in the running of government by Sonia and her team is likely to send warning bells ringing among allies.
Political analysts also caution that the Congress' acceptance of coalition politics as a here-to-stay feature and its subsequent amenability to running a coalition government does not guarantee that the UPA will be a durable alliance. "Since the coalition hasn't yet faced a crisis, its durability is not yet tested," says Yogendra Yadav of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). According to him, one possible future crisis that could jeopardise the UPA coalition is a flaring up of the Cauvery water issue which may pit the DMK's interests in Tamil Nadu with its ministerial commitments in the UPA. Should any decision go against its regional interest, it may have to pull out of the government.
A second crisis that could set the stage for future acrimony will emerge if the Congress is overly hawkish on pushing through economic reforms that don't have the coalition's support. Identifying economic policy (especially disinvestment and FDI) as one of the main areas of potential tension between the Congress and its Left supporters, Mehta says: "It seems that the Congress is trying half-and-half on economic policy—almost scrapping disinvestment but insisting on FDI. If the Left confines itself to opposition in Parliament but foregoes action like strikes, the contradiction will be more performative than real. But if the Left becomes the source of industrial unrest, the situation will get trickier for the Congress."
Yadav also feels that the Congress is "less than willing to develop a full institutional mechanism for power-sharing within the UPA coalition". Indications of this behaviour include the retention by the Congress of key portfolios and the fact that all new appointments seem to have been made by the Congress rather than the UPA government.
However, Congress spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi insists: "Not only does the Congress have the coalition spirit and the historical legacy of being an inclusivist party, but we also have a sophisticated mechanism for running a coalition government." He says that this mechanism operates through multi-layered consultations involving ministers, the UPA coordination committee, the allies outside the coalition and the National Advisory Council. Adds senior Congressman Motilal Vora: "The major UPA members have brought their experience of running coalition governments at the state level to the Centre, which accounts for coalition's smooth functioning."
With the allies in good humour, a formidable economic team and no major ongoing crisis except the syl canal issue, the going has been good for the Congress. However, the critical test for the party lies in the months ahead, as the UPA gets down to the serious task of implementing the CMP objectives. One can only hope that the business of governance does not degenerate into a mess of bruised egos and policies designed to appease hurt allies.