Government walks the razor’s edge, trust vote could go either way

By Murali Krishnan, Liz Mathew and Kavita Bajeli-Datt, IANS,

New Delhi : Fighting with its back to the wall, India’s United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was Friday busy rustling up the numbers in a do-or-die trust vote in parliament as allegations of defections, horse-trading and cross-voting in the ruling coalition flew thick and fast.

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Till a few days back, party managers were optimistic that the arithmetic in the 543-member house was in their favour to obtain the magical 272 number needed for the survival of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government.

But with a determined opposition – that includes both the Left and the Right – going on the overdrive to woo smaller parties and even some of the UPA’s constituents, it looked Friday that the vote would be very close.

There was speculation over possible defections from both sides. While the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claimed it would get at least four MPs from the Congress, including some from Karnataka, to vote against the government, the Congress also pointed out that there were a few MPs from the BJP and the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) ready for cross-voting.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi was constantly in touch with senior ministers and party leaders, instructing general secretaries and state convenors to take all possible measures to keep the party MPs together. Gandhi – who after initial hesitation has thrown her weight behind Manmohan Singh and the contentious nuclear deal with the United States – will begin meeting her party MPs state-wise Saturday morning and all party MPs have been directed to stay put in the national capital.

With just four days remaining for the trust vote, the high-voltage political drama continued to play out.

The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), which has five MPs and is one of the groups crucial to the government’s survival, was ambiguous about the way it would swing as its leader Shibu Soren continued to play a hide and seek game and refused to be pinned down.

Soren, who was forced to resign as coal minister in 2006 after he was convicted for murder, publicly demanded his ministry back. Congress floor managers hinted that Soren could be rehabilitated in the government.

Even Parliamentary Affairs Minister Vayalar Ravi gave sufficent indications to that effect.

“Shibu Soren has every right to claim his ministership in the council of ministers as he was a minister once. But I am not in charge of cabinet formation,” he said.

But sources in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is determined to oust the Congress-led government from power, said the party had approached Soren offering him the chief ministership of Jharkhand, where it says it can dethrone the state’s UPA government.

However, Teklal Mahto, a JMM Lok Sabha MP from Giridih district, was clear in his stand. “There is no question of having an alliance with the NDA. I will vote in favour of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) irrespective of whatever decision my party takes,” Mahto told IANS.

Echoing his view, Jharkhand Deputy Chief Minister and JMM legislator Sudhir Mahto said: “There is no possibility of an alliance with the NDA. It is just a speculation that the JMM is cementing an alliance with the NDA. The rumours are being floated to tarnish the image of the party.”

Manmohan Singh phoned former prime minister and Janata Dal-Secular president H.D. Deve Gowda to seek the support of his party’s three MPs.

After the brief conversation, Gowda was non-committal, refusing to indicate which way his party would vote.

“I will be meeting him (Singh) tomorrow (Saturday) in Delhi. There are still two days’ time. Why is this hurry? We are neither in the UPA nor the NDA. We are on our own,” Gowda said enigmatically.

Although Gowda has three MPs in his party on record, one of them – Kerala leader M.P. Veerendra Kumar – is not likely to vote in favour of the UPA. The Kerala unit of the JD-S is part of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M)-led Left Democratic Front in the state.

In the midst of all this, rebel Samajwadi Party MP Munawar Hassan came out openly to claim he was offered money for his vote.

“I was offered Rs.250 million for the trust vote. The person who offered me the sum wanted me to be loyal to the Samajwadi Party and vote for the UPA government,” he alleged.

But as tensions grew over the numbers game and whether the UPA would survive the confidence motion, a confident External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee said the government will “sail through” the trust vote.

“Have patience, we will sail through. We have the numbers,” Mukherjee said while making a quick exit after addressing medical students at the convocation of the Post-Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER) in Chandigarh.

Mukherjee has been at the centre of most moves that the Congress-led UPA government is making to survive Tuesday’s trust vote.

Fearing its MPs could be poached by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati ahead of the trust vote, the Samajwadi Party leadership – who have decided to support the government – took extra care to keep its flock together directing most of its MPs to camp in the national capital.