Congress vs allies: All sound and fury signifying nothing
By Amulya Ganguli: If the communists were the Manmohan Singh government's bugbear during the first term of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) when they were its allies, then the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) is perhaps one of its most irksome partners now.
But there's a difference. While the Left was driven by anti-American prejudices, the DMK is guided by its blinkered Tamil chauvinism which ignores national considerations.
As a result, it tries to exploit the sentiments of the Tamils in Tamil Nadu by championing the cause of the Tamils in Sri Lanka without paying any heed to the damaging consequences of its restrictive sub-national outlook.
For all the suffering which the Sri Lankan Tamils underwent during the fratricidal civil war, they remain citizens of the island. By raising the issue of Eelam or a separate homeland for them, the DMK is only driving a wedge once again between the Sinhalese and the Tamils.
The stance is all the more deplorable because the DMK's purpose is not so much the betterment of the Tamils in Sri Lanka as of its own political position in Tamil Nadu. Having lost the last assembly election and having been weakened by the rivalry between the two sons of party supremo M. Karunanidhi, the DMK sees the human rights debate on Sri Lanka as an issue to revive itself.
For the government, what this self-serving attitude confirms is the difficulty of running a coalition in a land as diverse as India where the popular preoccupations in one part of the country have no resonance elsewhere. Yet, since an ally belonging to that region has the power to embarrass the government by withdrawing support - as the DMK has done - the government has little option but to try to keep it in good humour.
Clearly, the prospect of being blackmailed is an ever-present threat in such an arrangement. There are two ways of dealing with this danger. One is placation and the other is to play off one ally against another.
To start with the first, the government tried it when the DMK's Andimuthu Raja was caught in the telecom scam. It stood by him till he was jailed by the Supreme Court because dismissing him might have made the DMK withdraw its support.
The end result of succumbing to the blackmail has however not been a happy one. First, the government's image has been severely tarnished and, secondly, this taint was one reason why the Congress lost along with the DMK in Tamil Nadu.
As for the balancing trick involving two or more allies, this game is now being played with the Trinamool Congress unexpectedly offering support to the government in case the DMK's antics prove to be too troublesome.
The Trinamool Congress's offer could not have come at a better time because the DMK's sulks were compounded by the Samajwadi Party's (SP) demand for Union Steel Minister Beni Prasad Verma's resignation for accusing SP leader Mulayam Singh Yadav of harbouring terrorists.
As the sequence of events shows, a government can be tripped up by the consequences of a civil war in a neighbouring country or an unwarranted comment by a Union minister. Although the Trinamool Congress has come to its rescue this time, it has to be remembered that the same party had, like the DMK, put its partisan objectives above the national interest when it opposed the Teesta river waters treaty between India and Bangladesh on the plea that it would cause a shortage of irrigation water in north Bengal.
But, even as the coalition partners try to extract whatever concession they can from the first party of the combination, the latter has the advantage of knowing that none of them wants an early election.
This reluctance applies to both the DMK and the SP because of their weakened condition in their respective states, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh. While the DMK's chances of ousting the currently well-placed AIADMK are dim, the SP has been floundering because of a deteriorating law and order situation.
Even the Trinamool Congress's overtures to the government at the centre are said to have been motivated by its realization that the party has lost a lot of ground since it came to power on a wave of high expectations.
The political scene is, therefore, a curious one. A government at the centre, which faces allegations of corruption and policy paralysis, is being harried by allies, who cannot be said to be firmly entrenched in their own states.
Both the sides are careful, therefore, not to be too pushy. While the government shows signs of accommodation, its opponents flex their muscles without recourse to any definitive action.
There is a Lakshman Rekha or a safety margin which none of them dares to cross. For all practical purposes, it is a game of shadow-boxing, all sound and fury, signifying nothing.
(23.03.2013 - Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)