Friday, July 25, 2008

Test Vote in the Lok Sabha

Last week’s events in India’s national Parliament (Lok Sabha) brought an end to months of entertaining melodrama. The ruling coalition, led by the Congress Party of Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh, survived a “test vote” that challenged their right to govern and in the process, realigned the political landscape of Delhi. It was a stinging loss to the Communist and Hindu nationalist parties. Although multiple issues brought on the confrontation, the India-USA Nuclear Treaty about which I wrote last winter overshadowed all.

Ostensibly, the treaty allows India to have international access to nuclear fuel and advanced technology in exchange for strict monitoring of its civilian reactors by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Below the surface there lurks the deeper issue of whether India, by signing the treaty, would move into a closer strategic relationship with America. Although nothing is stated in the treaty to indicate this, the sense of many is that by pressing forward, India will step out of the shadows to play a greater, and possibly more assertive, role in Asia. Many wonder if the country is ready for it. The Communist parties see India being drawn into America’s strategic orbit as a foil against China or Iran. The Hindu nationalists see India compromising its nuclear arsenal, while the “common man,” the so called aam admi, probably cares little.

The Congress Party does not have a majority in Parliament, so it is allied with the Communist Party (CPI) to form a coalition government with Manmohan Singh, a Congressman, serving as Prime Minister. It’s been a marriage of political convenience that has often seen Mr. Singh dancing to the tune of the Communists’ choosing. For months, the CPI has threatened divorce over the issue of the nuclear treaty, staying the government’s hand and bringing Parliament to a standstill. Had the CPI walked away, it could have forced a general election, something the Congress Party feared. Food and fuel prices are going through the roof, inflation is accelerating (12%), growth is slowing, and on the whole, the government has few accomplishments to show for its tenure in office—all boding ill for the Congress Party.

Finally, sensing little to lose, Congress called the Communist’s bluff and submitted the nuclear treaty to the IAEA for approval. Sensing an opportunity to strike while the opposition was fractured, the right-wing Hindu nationalists (BJP) called for a Parliamentary “trust vote” to see if the ruling coalition still held a majority. Thus was set in motion the turmoil of the last month.

Things were looking grim for Mr. Singh and the Congress Party, especially when a small, regional party from Uttar Pradesh, the BSP, threw their 17 votes behind the Hindu nationalists. They too railed against America and felt the N-Deal infringed on Indian sovereignty. At least, that’s what they said, but mainly it was power politics and backroom deals. Both the BSP and BJP saw the fall of the government as a golden opportunity for grabbing the Prime Minister’s office for their respective leaders, L.K Advani for the BJP or Kumari Mayawati for the BSP. Since it looked like Mr. Singh’s days were numbered, they felt to strike while the iron was hot. Unbeknownst to everyone, alliances were shifting in the murky world of India politics.

Uttar Pradesh is the largest and most populated state in India, so what happens there is of national importance. Politics in the U.P. features neither the Communists, the Congress Party or the BJP but rather two regional parties controlled by intense political rivals—Mulayan Singh Yadav and Kumari Mayawati. Yadav controls the Samajwadi Party (SP) with an iron fist and a populist agenda. His chief rival is the BSP (Bhujan Samaj Party) of Kumari Mayawati, a politician on the rise in India.

The fight between Mayawati and Yadav has been a bare-knuckled contest for rule of the U.P. Mayawati came to power as Chief Minister last year, ousting her political rival Yadav. She immediately fired 30,000 police officers, a sizeable number of who too were named Yadav. Being a Dalit (Untouchable caste), Mayawati unabashedly appeals to the pent-up, communal resentment of the Dalits and lower castes toward the landowning castes that have historically subjugated and oppressed them. Somehow, in a surprising upset, she was able to forge an alliance between the Dalits and Brahmins to overwhelm her landowner, mid-caste opponents. Immediately she became a national heroine of the downtrodden. Unfortunately, she also came under investigation for coming into possession of a few hundred million (!!!) dollars in assets, tucked away in multiple bank accounts and property holdings. I loved her answer when questioned about this. “People like me and they give me gifts.”

Mayawati threw her support to the right wing BJP against the ruling coalition, spurring the Congress Party into action. Low and behold, Mulayam Yadav soon after pledged his party’s support to Congress. Having the Congress Party over a barrel, it was a perfect opportunity for him to get back at Mayawati. His move caught everyone by surprise because normally his Samajwadi Party and Congress are at each other’s throats, but you know the old saying, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Suddenly, in a stroke, the Congress Party had garnered enough votes to make up for its Communist loses, thrusting the fate of the government into the hands of a couple dozen independent, maverick MPs who let it be know that they were up for grabs. In a flash, these fellows found themselves in a once-in-a-lifetime position to name their price as each side came courting.

Stories of bribery and political horse-trading are common in India but in the last month, they have run rampant. It was widely rumored that each vote in last weeks test was worth, under the table, 25 crore ($6,000,000) but that’s probably an exaggeration. What I found astonishing was the temporary release of six MP’s currently serving jail terms for murder to allow them to cast their vote. It got so bad that on the floor of Parliament, three BJP MP’s interrupted the proceeding to hold up big bags of cash they claimed to have just received in bribe from a rival member. All this was on national TV.

In the end, the opposition came a few votes short and the Congress coalition retained power. The big losers look to be the Communists as they are now out of power and have lost positions and face. The BJP came off looking really bad as a dozen of its MP’s defected to the opposition. Mayawati, although on the losing end, actually came out of the fracas looking good as she made herself known to a national audience. I suspect you will be hearing of her in the years to come. Mulayam Singh Yadav and those like him gained influence and Manmohan Singh, usually so quiet and modest, was uncharacteristically triumphant after the vote. He advised Mr Advani, head of the BJP, to hire a new batch of astrologers to guide him in future, much to the delight of the press. Now that it has cut loose their communist anchor, the UPA/Congress Party will probably move aggressively with its agenda to show a record of accomplishment before next year’s general elections. That means pushing the nuclear treaty, revitalizing the agricultural sector and further deregulating the economy.

I find this all very fascinating and educational. Here is something I recently learned. A Member of Parliament cannot vote against the wishes of his party’s leadership without being subjected to possible expulsion from his party and Parliament. That will be the likely fate of those MP’s who defied the BJP and Communist Party’s commands. This means that political power is extremely hierarchical and in the hands of a very few people. A citizen cannot simply choose to run for office under the banner of a political affiliation as in America where anyone can call himself a Republican or Democrat. Here, that is not allowed. You can only run as a Congressman or as a member of the BJP if you are chosen by the leadership of that party to do so. “Given a ticket” is the term used. The leaders alone pick the candidates. There is no such thing as intra-party democracy or primary elections.

Sadly, politicians are generally held in very low esteem in India as it is generally assumed that they are crooks. This is why I was pulling for Manmohan Singh’s government to survive. He seems to be a man of rare intelligence and integrity, and is not a politician. Underneath the rhetoric, even his opponents respect him. You might say that he is an accidental Prime Minister. Sonia Gandhi could have taken the position four years ago but she declined when it became apparent her Italian ancestry would cause too much dissent and distraction. Instead she chose Mr. Singh who had come up through academia and as Finance Minister in the 1990’s. It was he who opened the Indian economy and fostered the tremendous growth seen in the years since. He’s essentially an a-political man and maybe that’s his problem. It’s hard to be a seal in a tank full of sharks.

As for the nuclear treaty, it still must receive clearance from the IAEA before going to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and then the US Congress for ratification. President Bush has said that he wants the opportunity to sign it while he is still in office as a positive legacy of his presidency, but at the pace it’s moving, that looks doubtful. Whatever the case, one thing is assured. It will continue to be the subject of front-page entertainment in India for many more months, while in the USA, you won’t hear much about it.