In what could be a mid-term corrective measure aimed at better coalition management,the Congress leadership on Tuesday took two important steps that clearly seemed aimed at mending its wilting relationship with alliance partners in the UPA and give them the attention and deference they have been seeking in the ruling alliance.
On the eve of his visit to the US,Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Tuesday night convened a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs (CCPA) a move that signalled the primacy he was according to the collective political body of the UPA. Secondly,he also appointed NCP president and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar as head a Group of Ministers (GoM) to devise a national manufacturing policy,an act that has not been seen for some time now.
Officially,the CCPA meeting was to express solidarity with Sikkim which suffered a major earthquake on Sunday (the ruling Sikkim Democratic Front is a member of the UPA even though it has a lone member in the Lok Sabha). A senior minister of the government,however,asserted that the CCPA would be the primary decision-making body in the absence of both the Prime Minister as well as the virtual No 2 Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee,who was also leaving for Washington Tuesday night.
Intriguing as it may appear,the decision to appoint Pawar as head of the GoM also fitted with the corrective approach of giving due importance to other members of the ruling coalition other than the Congress. The NCP chief used to head a number of GoMs in UPA 1,but this had shrunk with Pawar heading only two GoMs in UPA 2. He currently heads the GoMs to develop an integrated strategy for water management and another to devise the national pharmaceutical policy.
It is no secret that disenchantment within the alliance partners had been growing for some time on their having been sidelined vis a vis major policy decisions of the government. This disillusion manifested itself recently when West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee,head of the second largest party in the UPA,suddenly opted out of the Prime Ministers visit to Bangladesh. Her representative in the government,Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi,raised a number of objections on the proposed Teesta agreement at a meeting of the CCPA,almost accusing that the TMC had been disregarded.
Even on important Bills like the communal violence Bill and the Lokpal Bill,the NCP and the Trinamool Congress hinted that they had never been consulted. The DMK is already upset with the Congress over the treatment meted out to its leaders including Kanimozhi,daughter of DMK chief M Karunanidhi. All the alliance partners including the DMK,TMC and NCP protested loudly last week over the sharp fuel hike and subsequently forced deferment of another decision to raise LPG prices.
Political circles indicated that the decision to allow Pawar to head the GoM on national manufacturing policy also had its own advantages given that there has been serious differences with the Congress on the issue. At the last Cabinet meeting,Prime Minister Singh was forced to intervene after Commerce Minister Anand Sharma whose ministry is to pilot the brief on the manufacturing policy and Environment Minister Jayanti Natarajan got into a scrap over details.