The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government seems to have survived a scare.
The Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) crisis has just blown over. The NCP has forced the Congress Party and UPA II (2009-present) to have a coordination committee in the mold of the UPA I (2004-2009). The promised coordination committee will consult all UPA stakeholders before every important decision is made and will meet at least once a month.
If the spat with the NCP was not solved quickly, the intra-coalition rebellion could have been taken up by other allies of the Congress Party. Instead this incident ended after a week-long power plaly by NCP strongman and union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar.
Pawar's riff with the Congress was not about the UPA government’s choice to pass over him for the number two slot in the Party’s hierarchy. Instead, Pawar was angered by Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan’s new campaign to weed out corrupt officials. Already a number of NCP leaders had come under scrutiny inclding Ajit Pawar, the deputy chief minister who also happens to be Sharad Pawar’s nephew. Some other senior NCP ministers like Chaggan Bhujbal and Sunil Tatkare were also reportedly being investigated for graft allegations.
Although the NCP held out for an entire week, it was preordained that it would eventually relent. With just nine MPs in the Lok Sabha and seven in the Rajya Sabha, the NCP does not have the numbers in Parliament to make the Congress heed its demand. Pawar just does not have the kind of political leverage that other UPA allies like Trinamool Congress and DMK enjoy.
But had the Congress Party not taken care of Pawar's rebellion, it could have spread to these more influential allies. Pawar shrewdly not only engaged with other UPA allies like the Trinamool, Congress, and the DMK but also fed the media reports of his dealings with these two other UPA allies. His messsage to the Congress was clear: listen to my demands or else.
It was a vintage move Sharad Pawar, who is often called “the Gambler.” Indeed, this was no less than the third time that Pawar has taken a tough stand against the Congress and sought new political alliances and realignments. Thus, in the 1970's he quit the Congress in order to become the Chief Minister of Maharashtra. Years after leaving that position, in 1988, then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi reached out to him and brought him back into the Congress fold by making him the Chief Minister once more. He left the Congress a few years after that, however, this time because of the Italian-born Congress leader, Sonia Gandhi’s, foreign birthplace. The move backfired and he was again in political wilderness.
The brief NCP-Congress standoff reveals that the UPA is not immune from political instability. It also demonstrates that the opposition’s incapable of seizing upon the Congress's woes.