Indian Decade

UPA’s Picks Number 2?

What the seating order at India’s Presidential swearing-in ceremony may signal.

With the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party crisis appearing to subside, the UPA coalition signaled that it has also solved the issue over whether the NCP would be given the number two position in the coalition during the swearing in of Pranab Mukherjee as the 13th President of the Republic. As Indian Decade? reported on Monday, Mukherjee was previously elected President in a bitterly contested election.

The UPA’s message was conveyed by the seating arrangements at the swearing-in ceremony, where Defense Minister AK Antony was seated next to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and ahead of NCP supremo Sharad Pawar. During the swearing in ceremony at the Central Hall of Parliament, union ministers were seated on the right side of the podium. The sitting order, which is largely determined governmental protocol, was as follows: the Prime Minister, Antony, Pawar, P Chidambaram, SM Krishna, L K Advani, Sushma Swaraj (Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha) and Arun Jaitley (Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha).

Interestingly, Rahul Gandhi was seated rather inconspicuously in a row further back. Rahul, the Crown Prince of the Congress who has been the Prime Minister-in-waiting for years, is expected to soon decide whether he will join the government. A large number of Congress leaders want to see Rahul as PM as early as possible.

With this sitting order, the Congress has firmly conveyed to Pawar its opinion on whom it considers the Number Two in the UPA II government, although officially such a post does not exist. The Congress has made this decision after checking the seniority of Pawar vis a vis Antony. The Defence Minister first became Chief Minister of Kerala in 1977 at the age of 37 and was the youngest CM of the state. Pawar first became Chief Minister of Maharashtra in 1978.

The UPA coalition has been under strain in recent weeks over the NCP’s refusal to sign on to the continuation of the UPA government, of which it is a member, citing a number of issues including the Congress Party’s lack of consultation with it. The crisis appeared to subside earlier on Wednesday, however, when the two sides reportedly reached an agreement to set up consultation committees in Mumbai and New Delhi. Further giving this impression was the attendance of most NCP MP’s at the swearing-in ceremony.

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The very fact that Pawar sat at the number three seat conveys that the number two issue has been resolved and the coordination committees set up as part of the UPA’s grand bargain will instead focus on other areas of dispute. Congress, as the major party within the ruling coalition, has 206 members in Lok Sabha and 72 members in the Rajya Sabha. By contrast, NCP holds just nine seats in Lok Sabha and eight in Rajya Sabha.

However, the Prime Minister’s official website has still not uploaded a list of cabinet ministers after a controversy began brewing weeks ago following Pawar being listed immediately after the PM and before Antony at number three position. After the public demonstration of the UPA II government’s order of seniority, it seems to be only a matter of time before the PM’s website will upload the list of cabinet ministers with Antony featuring immediately after the PM.