Jul 9, 2008

India - From the frying pan?

There are many aphorisms available to describe the love affair that has started between the Congress and the Samajwadi Party. Politics makes strange bedfellows, for one. Or, there are no permanent friends or enemies in politics, only permanent interests. Expediency, after all, can be explained in many ways. Still, it may be useful to jog the collective memory. The Samajwadi party's stalwarts have said many rude things about Congress politicians in the past, though they do not like being reminded of it now — a TV channel that did by playing old sound-bites found that Amar Singh would not allow its reporter to be present at his media briefing the next day. Equally, Sonia Gandhi has had sufficient time to forget perhaps her most embarrassing moment — declaring in the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan a decade ago that she had the requisite Lok Sabha strength to form a government, only to find that the same Samajwadi Party on whose support she had banked, had left camp. There followed the episode of Amar Singh showing up uninvited at a Gandhi tea-party and being cold-shouldered by the Congress supremo — an episode that caused much public heartburn. You can either admire these politicians for getting over their personal pique in a larger cause, or you can argue quite simply that power cements many hearts together.

For all that, in finding common ground with the Samajwadi party, the Congress has finally managed to upstage the Left Front, which has ordered about an Indian Prime Minister far more than anyone now cares to recall. The Communists have therefore got a well-deserved comeuppance, since their trump card has turned out to be a dud. With their newfound friends, the Congress and its allies in the United Progressive Alliance now calculate that they will be able to demonstrate a majority in the Lok Sabha, which would deprive both the Left and the singularly shortsighted BJP of their chief argument — that the government is going ahead with an Indo-US nuclear deal that does not have the support of the House. Armed with this hoped-for majority, Dr Singh will be free to close the deal that he negotiated last year, and notch up a significant success for his government.
The question is whether the Congress recognises the full ramifications of its bargain with its newfound friends. Amar Singh, for one, has left no one in doubt that he has an agenda linked, as anyone who reads the newspapers can tell, to the feud between the Ambani brothers. And so Mr Singh wants Murli Deora, the petroleum minister who is a long-time friend of Mukesh Ambani, to be axed. He wants a windfall tax to be imposed on companies (chiefly Mr Ambani's Reliance Industries) that profit from oil, though Reliance mostly serves export markets. Mr Singh also has a view on spectrum, a vital resource for telecom companies (the second largest in the country being his friend Anil Ambani's Reliance Communications). The country has known about crony capitalism as a covert operation; now politics itself has been reduced to business rivalry by other means.
It is possible that Amar Singh will not get what he wants. It must be hoped that there is enough sense in the Congress to not allow such crude and brazen pandering to private agendas to succeed, not least because none of the demands make sense. Reliance can quite easily turn from being an independent refiner of crude that it purchases to refining crude that belongs to others, or it could park its profits overseas by bloating costs or lowering receipts, practices not unknown to many of India's street-smart businessmen. Still, the time may come when the Congress looks back wistfully on a phase when it had the support of ideologically pig-headed parties, but which nevertheless had no extraneous agendas.

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