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POLITICS-INDIA: Nuking Democracy

Analysis by Praful Bidwai

NEW DELHI, Jul 18 2008 (IPS) - As the parliamentary floor test for the controversial United States-India nuclear cooperation deal approaches, the domestic political odds seem to be turning against India’s ruling United Progressive Alliance government led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

The government recently lost its majority when the Left parties withdrew support to it for pushing the deal without their consent after promising them that it would not do so.

The UPA and its new-found ally, the regional Samajwadi Party, are struggling to put together a bare majority of legislators who will back the government in a vote of confidence slated for Tuesday. But by all accounts, they are at least 10 MPs short of the halfway mark of 271 in the Lok Sabha, the law-making lower house of India’s Parliament.

Meanwhile, a cloud of uncertainty hangs over the fate of the deal and the ability of the Indian and U.S. governments to meet the rapidly closing international deadlines for negotiating the next stages in completing it.

Yet, no matter how the debate over the deal plays out, and whether the deal goes through during the present term of the U.S. Congress or not, the bitter domestic political contention centred on it has exposed the seamy side of India’s much vaunted democracy.

Over the past 10 days, India’s Parliament has been suddenly reduced to a political bazaar or auction-house.

A free-for-all has broken out to muster numbers for and against the confidence vote, mainly by buying support. On display is crass political opportunism and rampant corruption.

As V. R. Krishna Iyer, one of India’s most respected jurists and a former judge of the Supreme Court, put it: “Parties barter seats and votes and try to make Parliament an enterprise with commercial stakes…[thus turning] micro-parties and independents [into]… commodities.”

Arrayed against the UPA-SP in the 542-seat House is the entire, but politically and ideologically divided opposition.

Its largest component is the right-wing, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (about 170 MPs), followed by the Left parties with their 59 MPs, and now joined by the fast-growing Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which recently dislodged the Samajwadi Party from power in India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh.

The ruling coalition has launched a barely concealed, concerted drive by to win over MPs through inducements such as promises of ministerial positions and support for parochial regional agendas, and outright bribery.

The opposition, especially the BJP and the BSP, has been trying to match the ruling coalition, by poaching on the defection-prone SP and winning over undecided parties and independents.

They are capitalising on the fact that the term of the present government is due to end by May 2009 and a general election is around the corner. The ruling coalition faces the prospect of elections with the disadvantage of incumbency, and popular discontent at inflation, currently running at 12 percent a year, and an agrarian crisis.

For the past week, the UPA and the SP were targeting typically small, regional parties that have not yet joined the opposition, or made up their mind either about the nuclear deal or on how to vote on Jul. 22.

Such parties, factions or individuals have no positions on matters such as foreign policy and security issues. But they can be persuaded to vote one way or other for reasons that have nothing to do with the content of the issue at stake.

The UPA-SP’s effort at mustering support has been directed at 20 to 30 MPs belonging to half a dozen parties, half of which were until recently part of the UPA. The other half belong to the now-truncated centrist United National Progressive Alliance, which the SP, its leader and largest component, deserted to join hands with the UPA in a U-turn.

But the UPA-SP are now turning their gaze inwards because their own MPs are showing signs of resistance or defiance, reminding them that they must guard their own flanks. Today, only 26 of the SP’s 39 MPs showed up at a party meeting to which they were all summoned.

The opposition’s campaign to garner the numbers has gathered momentum in the last couple of days as the ruling alliance has faltered, and several regional micro-parties, from the South, the East and the North, have shown their willingness to vote against the government.

However, it is too early to predict the result of the confidence vote. The government may yet win it, although it will be a close contest

“Even if the government wins the vote, it will have lost a great deal of its credibility,” says Zoya Hasan, professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. “A majority stitched together through horsetrading, defections, unethical inducements and bribery will not amount to a genuine popular mandate. And the UPA will not be able to claim that the deal convincingly commands majority parliamentary support.”

Adds Hasan: “Nor will the opposition be able to claim victory for its own anti-nuclear deal stance if the vote of confidence is lost. Everybody knows that the BJP is not really against the deal in principle, and would have negotiated something similar had it been in power. Nor is the BSP even remotely concerned about such distant issues. Only the Left parties have a clear and principled stand against the deal.”

Besides horsetrading and unethical deals, the present political contention has two particularly murky and unsavoury aspects. First, the government has made the democratic political process hostage to the machinations of powerful corporate interests.

The Samajwadi Party is trying to extract mileage from its support to the UPA by lobbying for changes in important policies and personnel, which would favour the Anil Ambani group, to which it is closely tied.

Anil Ambani, one of the world’s richest men, and CEO of the ADAG conglomerate, is involved in internecine rivalry with his elder brother Mukesh, who runs the Reliance Industries empire, including one of the largest petroleum refineries in the world.

SP leaders have demanded that the government impose a windfall profits tax on private sector refiners, who have made enormous profits from skyrocketing oil prices over the past year. They also would like the government to drop finance minister P Chidambaram and petroleum minister Murli Deora.

To counter this lobbying, Mukesh Ambani earlier this week met Prime Minister Singh and other top government leaders.

It is widely believed that the elder Ambani, through various mediators, has been encouraging various parties to poach on Samajwadi Party MPs so as to weaken his brother politically. But he presumably wanted to assure the UPA that he backs the government.

Now Singh is under pressure to mediate between the two warring brothers.

This situation is similar to that in 1990, when powerful industrial conglomerates and business groups ganged up against the then Prime Minister V.P. Singh for daring to enforce India’s tax laws. They successfully dislodged him. Some actually turned up in New Delhi with suitcases full of currency notes with which to bribe MPs from different parties.

The second unsavoury aspect of the present political tug-of-war is the extraordinary importance that politicians with a criminal background have come to acquire in the crude numbers game. Six MPs, belonging to different parties, and currently in prison as convicts or under trial, may well determine the government’s fate.

Several parties are trying to woo them with all kinds of promises in what is widely seen as a despicable show of cynicism.

“None of this speaks highly of India’s democracy,” says Hasan. “It shows that India has failed to evolve healthy norms of party practices and democratic functioning and, along with decent parliamentary conventions. We have elections, yes, and by and large they are free and fair. But democracy is about more than periodic elections or winning a parliamentary vote with a manufactured majority.”

By resorting to subterfuge, stealth and deception in imposing the nuclear deal upon the UPA, Prime Minister Singh has been complicit in promoting a form of political contention which encourages efforts at manufacturing a majority, and thus devalues democracy.

Even if he wins the confidence vote, Singh will have a lot to answer for.

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