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Page last updated at 16:20 GMT, Friday, 18 July 2008 17:20 UK

Delhi notebook - deals and jailbirds

By Chris Morris
BBC News, Delhi

It's been one of those weeks when the dirty innards of Indian politics have been on display in glorious technicolour.

An effigy of PM Manmohan Singh
An effigy of PM Manmohan Singh, shortly before leftists burned it

There's nothing like the prospect of a close vote in parliament to get the political pulses racing, and in Delhi's sweaty summer heat a parliamentary vote of confidence in the government, due on 22 July, is likely to go down to the wire.

White Ambassador cars with flashing red lights have been zipping around the leafy boulevards of official Delhi with more urgency than usual.

And, all of a sudden, obscure members of parliament and minor political parties have found themselves at the centre of attention.

Both the government and the opposition have been trying desperately to woo them with promises of largesse, influence and plumb jobs.

One party leader much in demand, Ajit Singh, was offered a rather unique carrot when the cabinet approved a proposal to rename the airport in the city of Lucknow after his late father, Charan Singh, a former prime minister.

"Better late than never," was the gist of Mr Singh's response, as government officials insisted with perfectly straight faces that the timing of the decision was completely coincidental.

Other wavering members of parliament have been busy speculating in public about what kind of job might persuade them to vote one way or another. The Ministry of Coal, perhaps, or the office of Chief Minister of the state of Jharkhand.

That's politics, you might think. But a more serious allegation came from a communist leader, AB Bardhan, who suggested this week that the Congress party was trying to buy parliamentary votes for about three million pounds (six million dollars) each.

The accusation was angrily denied. It's a little rich, replied a Congress spokesman, coming from a party which has been financed from abroad for years. It's not about money, he said, it's about doing the right thing for the country.

Jail release

One thing is clear: every vote will count. And that's why six members of parliament have had to get special dispensation to attend the debate.

Why, many MPs seem to be calculating, support a government that could be doomed to defeat shortly afterwards?

Normally they're in jail, serving time for crimes ranging from extortion and kidnapping to murder.

The Indian constitution allows them out on bail to attend important parliamentary votes. But the sight of convicted murderers entering the parliamentary chamber won't be the most edifying of spectacles.

The most notorious of the six prisoners, Mohammad Shahabuddin, won his seat in Bihar at the last general election even though he was already in jail. His opponents say his political strength is based on fear.

If he's allowed to stand again, don't bet against another victory.

Point of principle?

In the midst of all this political theatre it is easy to forget that the vote of confidence was forced upon the government by a point of principle.

Communist and other left wing parties who'd helped give the Congress-led alliance a parliamentary majority withdrew their support in protest against the controversial nuclear deal with the United States.

Bihar MP Mohammad Shahabuddin
Mohammad Shahabuddin will be allowed out of jail to vote

If you listen to the Congress party the nuclear deal is about preserving India's energy security in the future. If you listen to the communists, it's about selling out to the Americans. Both see it as a matter of preserving the national interest. And the deal will stand or fall with the government.

But there are other issues at stake here as well, which are raising the stakes. India is in an era of grand political coalitions - no single party can ever hope to win a national majority on its own.

So the machinations of the last few weeks are also about getting on the right side of the political aisle in advance of the next general election. Even if the government survives this vote of confidence, it has to go to the polls by next May at the latest.

And that may be why it is struggling to win a majority in parliament now. Why, many MPs seem to be calculating, support a government that could be doomed to defeat shortly afterwards?

When India is described as 'the world's biggest democracy' it remains strictly true.

But stitching together a national coalition, in a country where caste leaders and regional parties have more and more proven electoral appeal, is a desperately difficult task.

Plenty of messy deals have to be done in the backrooms, a long way from the prying eyes of the voters. Politics can be an ugly business. In that, at least, India is not unique.




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