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July 21, 2008 / Mridul

Political Drama In India Nears Its Climax

After nearly an year since the terms of the Indo-US nuclear deal were concluded the Indian government will be facing a no-confidence motion on 22nd July. The Indian Prime Minister was forced to prove his government’s majority in the Parliament after the Left parties withdrew their support to the government on 9th July. The Left parties are of the opinion that the deal would undermine India’s freedom to take crucial foreign policy decisions which includes the decision on Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline.

The current political scenario is like a puzzle whose solution evades everyone; most aren’t even sure about the number of votes the government requires to stay in power – 271 or 272 – it’s just a single vote that can change the fortunes of the government and potentially the future of the country. Each and every single MP is invaluable and thats forcing the government – and the opposition – to fix a ‘rate’ for the MPs – the fence sitters. Small parties with even one MP or independents who hardly make their presence felt during the business of the Parliament will decide on Tuesday whether the government stays or falls.

Some of the key players who at the forefront of this political battle are:

Manmohan Singh: the Prime Minister who is eager to get the deal done.
Mulayam Singh Yadav: leader of the Samajwadi Party (SP) which filled the void created by the Left parties.
Mayawati: leader of the Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP) who has come out in full support of the Left parties to vote against the government.

Now these parties are trying to grab MPs from each others parties by facilitating defections and many of them have succeeded too. Apparently as many as 10 MPs from the SP have defected to the BSP. The leader of those ten MPs had given statements in the press about his support to the government on Saturday morning but by the evening he had switched positions. Why? The publicly spoken rate of the MPs is anywhere between rupees 25 crores (more than $5,800,000) and rupees 100 crores (more than $23,250,000). Every political party denies being involved in this horse trading but accuse every other party of the same.

Each and every MP is so important that the government has apparently asked the intelligence agencies tokeep an eye on them, in case they are approached by another party. Some parties like the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) are interested in ministerial berths in the government; its leader Shibu Soren, who was sentenced for life but later acquitted in a murder case three years ago, apparently wants the coal ministry and the post of deputy Chief Minister in the Jharkhand state government. The Congress party tried to persuade the leader of another small party, Ajit Singh of the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD); it offered to name a major regional airport after one of its founding members but that didn’t work – Ajit Singh’s parties 3 MPs would vote against the government.

Meanwhile the real opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been accused by the ruling Congress party of betrayal. In December 2007, in a meeting between the senior BJP leaders the Prime Minister had assured that the deal wouldn’t compromise India’s ability of making crucial foreign policy decisions and that the government would answer opposition’s all questions regarding the nuclear deal; the prime Minster actually gave this in written as the Opposition leader Lal Krishan Advani asked for. Mr. Advani even said that his party was ready to support the government if the deal allows India to go ahead with a nuclear test, when & if need arises. It is believed that Mr Advani is in the favor of the deal but is under party’s pressure to oppose the deal.

Meanwhile the bookies are betting on the government to win the no-confidence motion. Apparently bets worth $250 million are on for Tuesday’s floor test of the government. The uncertainty about the government’s future is even greater than the 1999 no-confidence motion when the then BJP government was defeated by a single vote. Since the margin for victory or defeat is so narrow another and the most important member of the Parliament comes into play – the Speaker.

Somnath Chatterjee was elected to the Lok Sabha (Lower House) as member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and was the unanimous choice for the post of the Speaker. When the Left parties withdrew support to the government, he was apparently pressurized by his government to resign but he refused to do so until the trust vote on 22nd. Now that makes him a crucial player. In case of a tie, which is highly possible the Speaker votes and by convention he should vote for the government. But most probably he’d come into play if some MPs abstain from the voting (another likely possibility) and that what the government is praying for as it would lower the required number of votes needed for majority.

This highly anticipated trust vote has resulted in a media blitzkrieg with each network fighting it out to get the politicians to talk about their plans for the D-day; Quoting named sources many channels claim that the government has got the required number of votes while others are playing it safe. Many have called astrologers to their shows to predict the government’s fate but even they aren’t saying anything with certainty. Such a nail-bitting situation has ensured that the nation would be glued to the television sets on Tuesday afternoon.

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