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POLITICS-INDIA: Costly Vote of Confidence

Analysis by Praful Bidwai

NEW DELHI, Jul 23 2008 (IPS) - Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has won a bitterly contested motion of confidence in his government by 275 to 256 votes in Parliament, securing his government’s survival for several months.

But the victory, on Tuesday, came at the cost of a major loss of political credibility for the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and its new-found friend, the regional Samajwadi Party, amidst charges of flagrant horse-trading and payment of hefty bribes for the purchase of supporting votes by Members of Parliament.

The confidence vote became necessary because Singh wanted to push the controversial civilian nuclear cooperation deal with the United States in the teeth of fierce domestic opposition. This led to the withdrawal of support to the government by the Left parties and reduced the UPA to a minority in the Lok Sabha, the law-making lower House of Parliament.

The UPA took up the challenge of securing the trust vote in the full knowledge that it and the SP lacked the required numbers; and winning the motion would need money power, bribery and other unscrupulous methods such as political arm-twisting, media manipulation and offers of the loaves and fishes of office in return for opposition MPs voting against their own parties’ whips.

Not just the UPA’s reputation, but India’s democracy itself will end up paying a high price for the Machiavellian politics involved in the run-up to the vote.

Crude political manipulation, and the display of Rs 10 million (about 200,000 US dollars) in bank notes, allegedly paid as bribes for crossing the floor, has shocked the public had shaken its confidence in the fairness of the political process of democracy.

The overall impact of the changes brought about by the political realignments caused by the vote and its aftermath will be to encourage a rightward shift in Indian politics, thus further alienating the vast majority of the people, who are poor, from governance processes.

“The UPA and the SP resorted to blatant abuse of power and abominable malpractices to win,” says Kamal Mitra Chenoy, a social scientist. “They stooped to the same low level as the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party does. This has discredited them significantly in the eyes of the public.”

Adds Chenoy: “Worse, the UPA suborned the office of the Lok Sabha Speaker, who belongs to the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), which is opposed to the nuclear deal and voted against the government. They put pressure on him to continue as Speaker although his party was opposed to this, and thus weakened his authority.”

On Friday the CPI-M, expelled the speaker, Somnath Chatterjee from the party, though he may continue to hold the high constitutional post, which is supposed to be above party politics by convention.

The greatest scandal during the two-day debate on the confidence motion occurred soon before it was put to the vote, when three MPs from the BJP displayed thick wads of money on the floor of the Lok Sabha, claiming that these were given them as bribes to abstain. They claimed this was paid to them as part of total bribes offered by Samajwadi Party general secretary Amar Singh in return for defying the BJP whip.

Things got murkier when a private television channel claimed that it had conducted a “sting operation” in support of the allegation, which showed an SP leader visiting the residence of one of the three BJP MPs. The channel, however, decided not to air the stealthily gathered footage, and instead says it will hand it over to the Speaker for investigation.

Media insiders believe that a factor at work in the channel not airing the footage is the rivalry between the Ambani brothers, who run vast business empires from the western port city of Mumbai.

Mukesh and Anil Ambani, who control the equivalent of five percent of India’s GDP, are locked in a fratricidal war and back political parties that are hostile to each other.

Mukesh Ambani is said to support the Congress party, which leads the UPA, and the BJP as well. But Anil Ambani is a staunch supporter of the Samajwadi Party, and is personally close to its leaders.

This corporate rivalry has further muddied India’s political waters. Its intensification is directly related to the UPA-SP alliance, itself necessitated by Manmohan Singh’s insistence on pushing the nuclear deal.

The BJP made a big fuss about the Rs 10 million bribery issue and first demanded that the government resign and the vote be cancelled. But it soon fell in line and voted on the motion.

It has now launched a nationwide campaign on the allegedly corrupt means used by the UPA-SP to muster support in Parliament.

However, the BJP has a credibility problem because its own MPs are unreliable and can be induced or bribed to vote against their party. Yesterday, five BJP MPs voted for the government, and another three abstained or did not show up—despite the party whip. “The charge is probably true that the SP tried to bribe at least one of the three MPs, who then roped in the other two, and set up a sting operation with the help of the television channel to deceive the SP,” says a media insider, who insisted on anonymity. “That means the bribed BJP MPs were no innocents or hapless victims of Machiavellian manipulation, of the kind Amar Singh is known for. They planned and conducted the sting operation only to embarrass the government.”

This episode has drawn sharp comments from legal experts, the intelligentsia and the public and raised questions about the legitimacy of the Parliament debate and the confidence vote.

Equally importantly, it has affected the image of Prime Minister Singh. Says Chenoy: “Singh has a reputation not only for never having sullied his hands in murky politics and shady deals, but also for having never encouraged his colleagues to do so. But in this case, he was certainly complicit in the UPA’s questionable tactics to secure support by whatever means.”

The confidence vote showed up most political parties barring the Left in a deplorably poor light and has highlighted the degeneration of India’s political system.

Says Achin Vanaik, a political scientist at Delhi University: “The significance of this degeneration lies not just in the unethical character of the votes’ rationale, but more importantly, in the non-representative nature of the choices made within the context of party-based democracy, without any reference to the people’s will. The confidence vote has set Indian democracy back.”

Adds Vanaik: “It is promoting utterly unscrupulous and unprincipled political alliances, which have no common ground in policies, programmes and priorities. This blurring of the lines of political demarcation will result in the BJP becoming disproportionately important as a party with a distinct identity. This doesn’t bode well for diversity and plurality in the political system, which is essential in a one-billion plus country.”

A prime example of scrupulous alliances is the current UPA-SP arrangement. The SP is backing the UPA not out of support for its policies or to isolate the BJP, but to counter its arch-rival, the Bahujan Samaj Party, which is rapidly growing in Uttar Pradesh, India’s biggest state with a population of 170 million people.

The Congress-SP alliance will shift the centre of gravity of Indian politics to the right, with possibly harmful consequences for the mass of the population which has a stake in Left-of-Centre policies.

Soon after the government secured the confidence vote, finance minister P. Chidambaram announced that the government would now be pushing for faster economic reforms including a bill facilitating greater foreign direct investment (FDI) in the insurance sector – that was being opposed by the Left.

‘’The bill will enable the government to raise FDI in insurance from 26 percent to 49 percent… The focus will now be on greater liberalisation,” Chidambaram said.

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