Indian government's unstable win

In wake of confidence vote, it faces shaky political alliances and corruption claims.

B Mathur/Reuters
More hurdles: Prime Minister Singh must manage an unwieldy coalition to advance a nuclear deal, economic reforms.
SOURCES: Reuters, International Atomic Energy Agency,© 2008 MCT

India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, scored one of the biggest victories of his political career when he won a knife-edge confidence vote in parliament Tuesday. But the triumph comes with strings that may weaken his government's prospects in upcoming general elections, expected to occur by May 2009.

The win will allow Mr. Singh to steam ahead with a groundbreaking but long-delayed nuclear deal with the United States upon which he has repeatedly staked his legacy and his government. It will also allow him to pass urgently needed economic reforms and rein in inflation, currently running at nearly 12 percent.

But salvaging his government has come with a price tag. In an intensely fought battle to cling to power, Singh's Congress-led coalition government, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), was forced to cut deals with smaller, regional parties whose support may prove unreliable, say analysts.

And the government has been embarrassed by dramatic claims by the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), that its allies offered cash for votes.

After two days of tumultuous debate in Parliament, the UPA won the confidence vote by a more comfortable majority than many had expected, with 275 seats, compared with 256 against.

The vote was sparked when the UPA's Communist allies withdrew their support from the government over the Indo-US nuclear deal, arguing that it would make India a stooge of the US.

In the days leading up to the vote, few political pundits would guess at the government's chances of survival. Had the UPA lost, the world's biggest democracy would have faced early elections and the nuclear deal would have been scuppered.

Pushing the nuclear deal

Now, the government has secured itself a few more months in power. Analysts say it will waste no time in trying to get the deal approved by the International Atomic Energy Agency – where a meeting is scheduled for August 1 – and the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a body of 45 nations that export nuclear materials, before it goes to the US Congress for approval.

The deal will allow India, which has nuclear weapons but has never signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to import nuclear technology and fuel, provided it separates its civil and military programs and allows some UN inspections.

Washington has urged New Delhi to hasten the passage of the long-delayed deal, agreed upon by Singh and President Bush in 2005, before US presidential elections in November.

Unreliable alliances

But at home, the Indian government's path is much less clear cut.

Singh, a mild-mannered economist who became prime minister in 2004 at the behest of Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi, has often seemed a reluctant politician, unsuited to the brutal cut and thrust of Indian politics.

But in the run-up to the confidence vote, he showed an ability to forge the opportunistic alliances that are essential for staying in power in India today.

Many economists hope he will use his remaining months in power to push through economic reforms, including an easing of foreign investment rules.

As finance minister in the 1990s, Singh was the architect of seismic reforms that heralded India's current economic boom. But as prime minister, he has been hamstrung by his erstwhile communist allies.

Many fear that the government's new alliance – formed with the express aim of winning the confidence vote rather than on ideological grounds – will leave the government too weak to achieve many reforms.

Singh's government will also suffer from claims that its allies bribed members of the BJP to vote with it. In an unprecedented moment of parliamentary drama, BJP members of parliament (MPs) waved wads of cash on the floor of the lower house Tuesday, saying the UPA's allies had paid it as a bribe.

Singh, who is known across party lines for his integrity, has promised his party will cooperate in an inquiry into the claims. But at best, say analysts, he has presided over a situation in which MPS changed their voting decisions amid claims of bribery.

"We have a politics without scruples, without principles, without common decency and without common prudence," wrote political scientist Pratab Bhanu Mehta in the Indian Express newspaper on Wednesday.

"This allegation will not be easy for the government to shake off and will be used by the BJP and leftists to discredit its victory," said Seema Desai, an analyst at the Eurasia Group, a London-based political risk advisory group.

With focus now turning to the general election, analysts expect opposition politicians to milk such claims for all they are worth.

On Wednesday, a group of key political parties including the government's Communist allies, a rising regional party and a number of smaller parties formed a new antigovernment coalition, claiming that the government had lost its moral authority.

India's most powerful lower-caste politician, Mayawati, who tried very publicly to bring down the government ahead of the confidence vote, said the government had "murdered democracy."

In the current political and economic climate, the government will hope to put off general elections for as long as possible. Meanwhile, all eyes will be on three significant state elections later this year, in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh.

All three are ruled by the BJP, which has had a good run in state elections this year.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.