3 years

Deal time

The Real Drama Backstage

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The hustings are over, but the action has just begun as political parties embark on negotiations for government formation. It’s deal time and here are the dealmakers

ALL THE world's a stage, said the Bard, where each must play a part. He knew little about parliamentary democracy, far less about India’s own adaptation of it. For, if you go by what you see on stage, you may be a trifle foxed by everything that follows. Where do we start?

Act I, Scene i: Ludhiana. Enter, from the right, an entire phalanx of leaders from the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), brought together by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This grand rally on 10 May was supposedly about garnering votes for the last phase of polling on 13 May, but was captured for its boastful display of alliance aggrandisement. K Chandrasekhar Rao, leader of the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS), dedicated to carving a separate state by that name out of Andhra Pradesh, was the notable presence on stage, having defected from the Left-led Third camp. If that wasn’t spectacle enough, the high-held clasp of the BJP’s Narendra Modi and JD-U’s Nitish Kumar was the sort of Kodak moment to which no brief nor candle could be held; the message—these two NDA allies hadn’t fallen out.

Yet, it would be mistaken to read spontaneity in the NDA’s Ludhiana rally. If there was anything to be discerned, it was this—the action had already shifted backstage, a shift destined to test the limits of frenzy by 16 May, the day of vote counting.

In any case, it was intense behind-the-scenes manoeuvres that allowed the NDA to spring its TRS surprise. And this brings us to the dramatis personae of the new dealmaking upon us. The man responsible for the TRS deal was none other than the former BJP President M Venkaiah Naidu, who has also been trying assiduously to mend fences with the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in Andhra Pradesh. Winning over Chandrasekhar Rao was his first strike. The BJP’s pitch to the TRS: its manifesto promise of a Telangana state within 100 days of coming to power.

More than the tallies of individual parties, it is proposals such as these that could end up determining who gets to rule the world’s largest democracy. It’s bound to involve give-and-take, and those leading the negotiations are not the faces familiar from the campaign trail. The skills may overlap, but the skillsets needed are different. Vote gathering demands shouting, recognisability and a zest for theatrics. Dealmaking requires discretion, trustworthiness and above all, patience. On a campaign, you ridicule opponents. Across the table, a raised voice or—if it comes to that—a veiled threat is a last resort.

With an outright majority beyond any party’s wildest fantasies, eliciting the support of 272 MPs for a confidence vote in the House is sure to be a challenge that’s not for the faint-hearted. With the electorate’s voice so incoherent, lines of preference so hazy and the allure of power so strong, expect plenty of confusion. Leaders will make an utterance one moment, and then contradict themselves the very next. Party spokespersons will suggest one thing, and then say something else. Politicians will make a commitment, and then seek to alter the very meaning of that word. The negotiators who keep a cool head through all this are likely to be the ones who come to occupy the treasury benches in the House.

THE MISSING COMRADE

If there was one man who embodied all those skills, it was the negotiator who put together the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in 2004, led by the Congress and supported by the Left. He did it on the dint of his political clarity. Remember, it was only by a whisker that the Congress emerged ahead of the BJP in the Lok Sabha count. It was the redoubtable General Secretary of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM), Harkishen Singh Surjeet, who brought the UPA together, rallying it around a cause and conviction: secular unity.

Surjeet’s steadfast commitment to the cause was such that he was trusted by Sonia Gandhi of the Congress as much as Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party (SP). Today, Surjeet is no longer around (he passed away in August last year), and it’s perhaps no coincidence that the Congress and Left parted ways over the Indo-US Nuclear Deal only after he was taken critically ill.

“Surjeet’s presence will always be missed,” admits a Congress leader currently in talks with existing, former and potential allies. But then, a stage absence cannot remain an absence for too long. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

Act I. Scene ii: Ludhiana again. This time, it was the voice of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. “I always believe that all secular forces have an obligation to work together to give the country a purposeful, secular government,” he declared on 11 May, echoing Surjeet with words he hoped would reach the Left.

Was the PM hoping against hope? The Nuclear Deal apart, given Manmohan Singh’s role in opening up the Indian economy, the Left was predictably in no mood to listen. As a result, what was achieved by one man in 2004 will now require an entire panel of negotiators. This also brings centrestage, and into the spotlight, those who were not very visible during the election campaign—the dealmakers.

This is so for every political formation. So, sneak yourself a backstage vantage point for the rest of the drama. On the centre-right, instead of the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate LK Advani, watch Arun Jaitley. At the Centre, instead of Sonia or Rahul Gandhi, watch Pranab Mukherjee. And on the left, instead of Prakash Karat the ideologue, watch Prakash Karat the negotiator.

THE UPA DEALMAKERS

The Congress has good reason to field External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee as its chief negotiator. His rapport with other parties developed over four decades in active politics, especially with the Left, is expected to stand him in good stead. He was at the forefront of the complex negotiations with the Left over the Nuclear Deal. The talks may have broken down, but there was no rancour in his equation with the Left. Now, the dicey part would be to avoid alienating Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress, an ally and sworn foe of the Left in West Bengal. If anyone can pull off the impossible on this one, it’s Pranabda, as he is familiar to many. Asked for his prognosis, all he offered the media was: “Numbers are important. Various discussions can take place once we know the numbers after the Lok Sabha election results are out.” Such words are the hallmark of a good negotiator, revealing nothing but the absolutely obvious.

But this is not the only front the Congress would have to manage. The selection of allies in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu would be equally crucial. The Fourth Front, comprising Mulayam Singh’s SP, Lalu Prasad’s RJD and Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP, may be together for the moment, but the Congress would be looking to widen the front’s faultlines. This would depend on how Nitish Kumar’s JD-U fares, his Narendra Modi clasp notwithstanding.

Uttar Pradesh will present a puzzle to the Congress. By its calculus, the SP would have very little wriggle space, given that abandoning its anti-BJP stance could spell electoral doom for it. Bihar and Tamil Nadu would call for even greater artfulness. With the UPA’s old allies, the RJD and DMK, both faced with a depletion of numbers (won so abundantly back in 2004), the task would be to switch partners in the nicest manner possible. The JD-U for RJD in Bihar and AIADMK for DMK in Tamil Nadu. And this, while ensuring no one feels jilted badly enough never to return, especially not Lalu Prasad, once an integral ally.

The two Congress general secretaries entrusted with helping Pranab Mukherjee in his dealings with the AIADMK’s J Jayalalithaa and JDU’s Nitish Kumar are Ghulam Nabi Azad and Digvijay Singh. Azad’s task is perhaps easier, going by a statement made by Jayalalithaa in February. “The Congress should sack the DMK from the central coalition and withdraw support to its minority regime in Tamil Nadu forthwith,” she said at a wedding party, “and save itself from sinking along with it.” This is a deal the BJP cannot match, since only the Congress can topple the Tamil Nadu government (run by her DMK rival) via the simple expedient of withdrawing support. Digvijay Singh wouldn’t be cold calling either. Earlier this year, once the Congress’ seat sharing talks with Lalu Prasad broke down in Bihar, the party had sent Nitish Kumar discreet feelers, claim JD-U sources.

THIRD FRONT DEALMAKERS

If the Left leader Prakash Karat has been the cynosure of political attention over the past few years, there’s reason for it. The Left’s 2004 equation with the Congress was set principally by him, and he has already outlined the broad contours of the same for the incoming Lok Sabha of 2009. He represents the new leadership of the Left, which has had to sweat it out to contain electoral losses in its Red bastions on one hand, while exploiting what it sees as cracks in the Congress armoury, elsewhere, to form the nucleus of a Third Front government, on the other.

What’s clear is that Prakash Karat’s ideological image need not overshadow his comfort with nuanced shifts in position. In this context, his approach to the US under a new dispensation there would be closely watched. More to the point right now, the Left leader has good relations with Chandrababu Naidu of the TDP, Jayalalithaa of the AIADMK and Naveen Patnaik of the BJD. Also, some would say, with Mayawati of the BSP.

What the Left offers is something intangible: governance free of both BJP and Congress characteristics. But then, Prakash Karat’s grand idea of coalescing Leftist notions of struggle with the impulse for unity is threatened by lack of fervour among those he seeks to woo. Remember, the TRS has already scampered away.

According to a senior Left leader, however, the plan is not quite so ambitious. “What Karat is ensuring is that more and more secular regional parties join hands with the Left, so that there will be a block of, say 100 MPs or so, supporting the government from outside and controlling most of its policies jointly,” he says, “This will not only offset our loss of numbers in the Lok Sabha compared to 2004, but also place the Third Front at the centre of events even if it is unable to form the government, rather than disintegrating and getting sucked away by the two larger parties.”

The Left will have to engage the Congress one way or another, and Prakash Karat will need to rely heavily for assistance on his colleague (and Surjeet protégé) Sitaram Yechury and his CPI counterpart AB Bardhan, both of whom are known for their pragmatic rather than dogmatic politics. “The Left Front is part of a larger bloc that includes its pre-poll allies. Any party seeking a post-poll alliance with the Left will also have to deal with these allies,” Prakash Karat said recently. What he didn’t say, though, was vastly more interesting: the Left could possibly hunker down on its opposition to the Congress on the reasonable pretext of ally pressure.

THE NDA DEALMAKERS

The BJP is clear about its ideological allies, it would appear, but even clearer about the difference between foes of convenience and foes of conviction. So the saffron party’s dealmakers are in talks with just about every party except the Left, Congress and RJD.

Party General Secretary Arun Jaitley occupies the central chair at the BJP’s negotiation table, though there are others with important roles in shaping NDA 2009. Sources say that while Narendra Modi has been entrusted with wooing Jayalalithaa (which explains his fist-waving at the Centre for ignoring his “Tamil brothers” in Sri Lanka), LK Advani too is in touch with the lady again seen as the siren of the south.

The man insulated from the campaign’s sound and fury, however, has been Arun Jaitley, who uniquely among BJP leaders was asked by LK Advani not to enter the electoral fray, “…because of his extraordinary ability to reach out to other political parties”. True to his brief, Arun Jaitley has kept in touch with allies, existing and probable, even as he crafted electoral battleplans. If his reputation as a control room manager is so strong, it’s for his extraordinary ability to break down big tasks into achievable bits that can be delegated to the right people. The lawyer’s tactical skills come into play here as well.

M Venkaiah Naidu is busy too. After swinging the TRS into the NDA, he is working on former ally Chandrababu Naidu of the TDP. Together, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu send more MPs to New Delhi than Uttar Pradesh, and are less fragmented in terms of electoral preferences. On her part, the BJP’s former Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje is in contact with the BJD’s Naveen Patnaik.

“The story of Orissa is going to be full of pleasant surprises,” beams Ravi Shankar Prasad, BJP spokesperson, on being asked for details.

Negotiations won’t be easy. Early signals can be deceptive too. The JD-U’s Nitish Kumar, for example, has already muttered something about his clasp of Narendra Modi not being as voluntary as it looked on television.

ODD MEN OUT

Technically speaking, there exists a Fourth Front of the SP, LJP and RJD, which too would like a shot at government formation. But realistically, their posture is one of bargaining strength. By joining forces as a bloc, they could strike deals with either the Congress for a UPA coalition or Third Front government. Yet, how closely the three parties will cohere once the luring game begins is an open question.

Anyhow, the formation’s chief negotiator is Amar Singh, even though his role this time around is likely to be hemmed in by a peculiar set of circumstances. Yet, Amar Singh has always been a networker whose rolodex cannot be ignored. “I am still in touch with my old friend Sitaram Yechury,” he said on 12 May, hinting at a move towards the Third Front. But his association with a business house (and associated corporate rivalry) may have complicated matters for him. This, despite the escape hatch he offered the Congress in July 2008 for the Nuclear Deal.

Another man who has been looking around is the NCP’s Sharad Pawar, officially a UPA member. His own prime ministerial ambitions are seen as a negotiating ploy, and just what game he might play will become clear soon. He will, however, be crucial to the negotiations.

How will it all end? Again, go backstage.

INSTITUTIONAL AGENDA

One of the factors that is discussed only in hushed whispers is the influence (or control rather) of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) over the final outcome. The BJP is already apprehensive that the agency will be wielded as a tool by the Congress in its bid to win ‘friends’, especially those vulnerable to prosecution possibilities, and thus influence electoral arithmetic. The scale of manoeuvering this time round is likely to be larger than that before the trust vote in Parliament last year, when allegations flew thick and fast about a truly breathtaking set of pecuniary and coercive tools deployed—even by the murky standards of the past—to secure a clear victory for the ruling UPA.

The BJP in particular is already crying foul. “The CBI played down Mayawati’s Taj Corridor case when she supported the UPA,” alleged Arun Jaitley recently, “The disproportionate assets case was activated when she withdrew support from the UPA. The CBI took a hostile attitude in the disproportionate assets case against Mulayam Singh Yadav when the UPA-SP relationship was acrimonious. It changed its attitude during the period of political honeymoon between the UPA and SP.”

This sounds very sanctimonious, but observers do not think the BJP would be less likely to do likewise, if it had the chance, in order to find its way out of an alphabet soup. The CBI has never been granted autonomy, despite noble noises made to this effect by various leaders. So long as this is the case, its use as a tool is difficult to insure Indian democracy against.

But there’s another high-ranking institution that the BJP really envies the Congress for, the highest of them all in the constitutional order of things: The Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Both the main contenders for power know that it is incumbent upon the President, by the Constitution, to invite the leader of the single largest party first to form a government. This is why both the Congress and BJP find themselves huffing and panting to get the finer arithmetic of their own seat tally in good shape. It’s the minimum condition for a bid for power at the Centre.

But in the absence of a clear verdict and in any melee that might follow, it is the President’s prerogative to issue the coveted invitation and demand 272 signatures in parliamentary support by a deadline of her own setting. Remember the bitter contest between the UPA and NDA in July 2007 to install a nominee as President? The Congress’ Pratibha Patil pipped the BJP’s Bhairon Singh Shekhawat to the Bhavan.

The action all took place backstage, far from the view of the vast electoral audience. The Union Government granted by the 2009 Lok Sabha Election may not be different. There’ll be only hints of it on the main stage. But keep watching. Indian politics cannot but be interesting.

Act IV. Scene iv: New Delhi. In front of Rashtrapati Bhavan… Open will be back with the finale after the break. The press needs to roll.