The future of relations between India and the United States – and the future of the two countries’ proposed nuclear deal – partially hangs on changing the name of Lucknow airport in the state of Uttar Pradesh. It also hangs on how six members of parliament, jailed for murder and other crimes, vote July 22 on a confidence motion that will determine the fate of the current Congress Party-led coalition government.
The gap between the coalition and its opponents in the 543-member Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) has narrowed this past week since the Communist-led bloc withdrew the support of its 59 MPs over the nuclear deal. There is now a risk that the government could be defeated, and this has led to horse trading that exceeds anything seen before.
Bribes as high as $6 million have been offered to some MPs to switch sides, according to widely believed newspaper reports.
Welcome to politics in India where worries about inflation and an economic downturn have had no effect on political parties’ spending.
Bribes have been paid to MPs to change parties for many years, but the sums have now become enormous because of huge amounts of money collected through extortion by top politicians, especially in regional parties.
MPs and their leaders usually want cash or favors, or both, but re-naming an airport is new. The government has agreed that Lucknow airport (the capital of UP) should be called Charan Singh Airport after a farmers’ leader and regional politician from the 1980s. It hopes this will persuade his son, Ajit Singh who leads the regional Rashtriya Lok Dal party, to cast his three MPs’ votes for the government.
It is also usual for major companies to become involved in political horse trading, but bigger stakes are involved this time – summed up in a headline “Govt’s Reliance is on Sahara” in the New Indian Express daily newspaper on July 14. This referred to a battle between Mukesh and Anil Ambani, brothers who control business empires called Reliance, plus a UP businessman, Subroto Roy, chairman of the Lucknow-based Sahara group.
Anil Ambani and Roy are close friends of the Samajwadi Party, which last week partially replaced the 59 Communist-led MPs as the coalition’s main supporter, giving the government confidence that it could win a parliamentary vote and save the nuclear deal. It is widely believed, as I suggested last week, that Anil Ambani is using the Samajwadi’s new links with the government to swing policies against his brother. Roy also wants favors from the government. The Reserve Bank of India is trying to curtail lending to his para-banking companies, on which his vast property-based empire depends for funds.
Mukesh Ambani is reported to have countered his brother’s lobbying by trying to persuade some of the Samajwadi Party’s 39 MPs to defect to parties opposing the government, which would lead to the defeat of the government and limit his brother’s political leverage. He met Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, earlier this week in what government spokesmen insist was a routine meeting.
Meanwhile, six MPs jailed for crimes from extortion to murder are being freed for a few days so that they can take part in the confidence vote. Convicted MPs are allowed to vote in parliament and the government hopes to win their support. One of the MPs has been jailed for life for murdering a political opponent and faces 40 other cases of murder, abduction and extortion.
Virtually none of the small parties’ leaders and MPs involved in this horse trading have any interest in whether the nuclear deal goes through or not. They are simply interested in personal power and riches. The Samajwadi Party, for example, was a vitriolic opponent of the government, and was against the nuclear deal, till a week or two ago. Now it sees political advantage in tying up with the Congress Party, both for short-term gains, assuming the government survives, and in alliances for the general election.
The horse trading will continue for another five days till the July 22 vote. No one is sure who will win, apart from those who receive big payouts and are temporarily released from jail – and have an airport named after their father.