After nearly three years of scattered existence, the UPA appears to be regrouping again. The faultlines in the political alliance are still visible and the issues of discord have not quite evaporated but there are indications that the partners are in the process of mending fences and getting their act together before the 2014 general elections.
The presidential and vice-presidential polls were expected to rock the already shaky, ideologically incoherent alliance further. With Mamata Banerjee in open rebellion, the Samajwadi Party playing the dodgy customer and the BSP non-committal, not many gave the UPA’s survival a snowball’s chance in hell. It didn’t help that the Congress made little effort to assuage hurt egos by reaching out. However, in the end it has managed rather well by enlisting the support of all the allies, including those supporting the UPA from outside, for its candidates.
So what does it mean? Can we conclude that the ruling alliance is out of the woods? Not quite. The real challenge for the Congress is to get the allies to back it on all reforms-centric controversial bills in Parliament. The government, which is fighting a severe crisis of credibility at the moment due to poor governance and policy confusion, needs to pursue reforms aggressively to redeem itself in the public's esteem. However, many of the allies have serious reservations on reforms. These threaten to hurt their vote banks back home.
Just on Tuesday, while announcing her support for presidential candidate Pranab Mukherjee, Mamata Banerjee made it clear that her party, the Trinamool Congress, won’t back any proposal to hike petroleum fuel prices, encourage FDI in retail, land acquisition for industry or reforms in the insurance sector. It means the Mamata problem for the Congress is set to continue for a long time.
While the Congress is relieved that it has enlisted the support of the Samajwadi Party and the BSP to offset the Mamata threat, it should be aware that Mulayam’s support generally comes with a huge price tag and BSP leader Mayawati has her mood swings too. They can chose to play the anti-reforms card whenever they chose and leave it hanging in a precarious situation during the passage of crucial bills. But the advantage with both is they are amenable to negotiations, not as inflexible as Mamata.
The real picture of the UPA’s unity will only be clear during the monsoon session of Parliament, in which a number of important bills are set to be tabled. The session in many ways will make or mar the prospect of the party in 2014. If it does not pass the important bills during this session, there would be little time left for it to roll them out. The opposition, for obvious reasons, would be out to scuttle its moves. This would put to test the political management skills of the Congress, in which it has been found wanting so far.
If the UPA survives the monsoon session, it will survive well till the end of its tenure. In that case it is possible that it would be in a position to give a tough fight to the NDA. One year-and-a-half is certainly a very long time in politics. With the UPA intact, it could hope for UPA III, which at this moment looks impossible.
The Congress is aware that the glue that holds together the UPA allies is anti-BJPism. The bigger parties such as the SP and the BSP would be wary of switching camps in view of their support base. This applies to a certain degree to Mamata too. If the BJP brings Narendra Modi into the picture before the elections, they are likely to stick together stronger. The Congress won’t mind a situation like that at all. The BJP would be aware of that too. To turn the NDA into a fighting unit, it would need to work out a strategy quickly.