For all the high-minded talk of 'coalition dharma' and 'portfolio karma', the tug-of-war between the Congress and the NCP is, at its core, about rather more mundane matters: it's about how the spoils of power should be shared.
Put very bluntly, the NCP's grouse is that the Congress, as the biggest party in the UPA, is cornering it all, leaving not even the crumbs for the "smaller" parties in the alliance.
The gloves have come off, and NCP leaders are beginning to give voice to it in blunt fashion. "The Congress has no respect for proportionate power-sharing in a coalition," according to an NCP leader. "All governors, ambassadors, chairpersons of boards and commissions are appointed by them. We can't even get a bank director."
Another NCP leader was even more bitter. "This," he said, "is a Congress government. Allies are just props; garnishing on the Congress cake. We don't feel that we belong here."
The NCP is particularly livid because the Congress has been very efficient at leveraging the NCP's goodwill, but rotten at reciprocating. Politics is all about "the system called reciprocity", as Mama Morton says in Chicago (watch here). "When you're good to Mama, Mama's good to you."
Thus for instance, when the Congress needed to mobilise wider political support for Pranab Mukherjee's candidature as President, it turned to the NCP to prime Sharad Pawar's home turf of Maharashtra. But when the NCP, having acted in good faith, reckons that one good turn deserves another, and it is now entitled to cash its chips - by asking for its candidate to be appointed a governor or the head of a bank - the Congress gets all huffy, and pulls rank.
NCP general secretary DP Tripathy reasons with disarming candour that the loaves and fishes of office ought to be shared between the alliance constituents. Power-sharing, he told the Indian Express, should be a function of relative strengths. "What about allotting some governors to allies as per their numerical strength? What about giving allies their share among nominated Rajya Sabha MPs or, for that matter, in different commissions and political appointments?”
The cynical message of his plaintive cry: Everyone, not just the Congress, should get a chance to milk the mammaries of the welfare state.
One of the thing that rankles the most with NCP leaders today its the tag of being a 'small party', which some Congress leaders have affixed to it, with the suggestion that it should learn to be measured in the 'demands' it makes of the Congress.
NCP leader Praful Patel pointedly mentioned on Friday that Congress leaders had repeatedly claimed that the NCP, which had only nine MPs, was a "small party." Evidently, he added, they had forgotten what Pawar had brought to the UPA table.
Pawar too invoked the 'small party' taunt in his letter to Manmohan Singh and to Sonia Gandhi, but used it to make a telling political point. “We are a small party," he conceded. "So it doesn’t confer stature or respectability. So we need to build up our party for the future. Therefore, we need to devote more time to build up our party,” he noted, evidently to account for why NCP Ministers were resigning from the Manmohan Singh ministry.
The imagined slights just keep piling up: the NCP is miffed that the Congress did not deign to discuss the imminent appointment of PJ Kurien as the deputy leader of the Rajya Sabha; and now, the buzz is that Sushil Kumar Shinde, whom Pawar inducted into politics, is to be made leader of the Lok Sabha, in place of Pranab Mukherjee, now just a step away from the Presidency. And with Rahul Gandhi all set to take the fast elevator to the top of the Congress heap, Pawar's position in the ministerial pecking order is bound to slip even further.
The Congress, with an eye on survival, may yet yield ground and concede most of the NCP's demands. But there's one - his opposition to the Food Security Bill - on which it cannot afford to give way, because it goes to the core of one of Sonia Gandhi's strategy to win votes ahead of the next general election. As the Agriculture Minister, Pawar has set himself against what he sees as an ill-conceived populist scheme that made for bad economics.
But even there the Congress can devise a way out - by shifting Pawar to, say, Defence (which he will be happy to take up, having served earlier in that relatively more weighty ministry), and by appointing a more pliant Minister to replace Pawar.
But this 'Pawar play' is only a symptom of the UPA's larger failing: for all the recent talk, particularly after Mamata Banerjee fell in line to back Pranab Mukherjee's candidature for the presidency, that the UPA has found its groove back, the UPA government is a hostage to its constituent allies. From now until the next election, it is fated to the 'death by a thousand cuts' treatment.
Although Mamata Banerjee was chastened by the political compulsions that led her to back Mukherjee's candidature (after attempting unsuccessfully to sabotage his nomination), she hasn't exactly surrendered tamely. Even today, she is sharpening her sword, ready to kill any "anti-people" bill that the UPA may put forward.
Pawar's and Mamata's power play are the surest signs that the smaller alliance parties have sensed that the Congress today is an enfeebled beast. They have scented blood, and like sharks moving in for their kill, are circling the waters. The lameduck UPA government may have just got a little more lame.