By Nilofar Suhrawardy, MMNS India Correspondent
NEW DELHI: Paradoxically, even before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had settled, taking charge for the second continuous term of Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, trouble from unexpected quarters surfaced. Singh and 19 members of his cabinet were administered oath of office and secrecy by President Pratibha Patil last week (May 22). Hard bargaining with key allies over which party should be allotted how many number of seats delayed the complete formation of the new government. Though there was nothing surprising about Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) with 19 seats and Trinamool Congress (TC) â€“ 18, giving a hard time to Congress leaders on their demand of ministerial berths, it certainly send a strong message from day one. At a point, DMK chief, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi even said that his party would give external support to UPA. TC chief Mamata Bannerjee, who was among the 19 ministers administered oath last week, accepted the Railways portfolio she had asked for. At the same time, the lady made it clear that she will not take charge of her portfolio till some of her party colleagues were included in the cabinet.
It may be said that any coalition government is bound to face such â€œteethingâ€ problems in its initial days. Nevertheless, it does raise questions on the degree to which Congress can expect its allies to function as cabinet members. Senior Congress leader, Cabinet Minister Kapil Sibal said: â€œEfficiency and performance will be the hallmark of this government.â€ It was with aim that Singh got down to begin working, from day one, after being administered the oath of office. The same can be said of other five ministers who were accorded portfolios, a day after taking oath (May 23). These include senior Congress leader Pranab Mukherjee, who was allocated Finance portfolio, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar with Agriculture, Food & Civil Supplies, Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution, A.K. Antony (Congress)- Defense, P. Chidambaram (Congress)- Home and S.M. Krishna (Congress)- External Affairs ministry. In contrast, TC supremo Mamata adopted a different line, despite being allotted the ministry she was keen for.
Some credit must be given to Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and senior Congress leaders for having at least managed to resolve the deadlock over ministerial berths. But that the deadlock prevailed certainly suggests that Congress leaders were given a hard time from day one on forming the new government. On its part, the Congress may say that the task would have been more difficult had the party won lesser number of seats. With 206 seats, the Congress succeeded in attracting enough legislators to gives its alliance, together with external supporters, more than 320 seats, which is significantly higher than 272- the magic figure needed to prove majority in the Lok Sabha.
The Congress leaders were probably prepared to face wrangling over ministry sharing. The party, however, had not expected that the first statement from the Prime Minister soon after assuming office would be over disturbance in the country. The disturbance refers to violence and clashes in Punjab and several parts of Haryana, triggered by killing of a Dera sect (Sikh) leader Sant Rama Nand in Vienna (Austria). Visiting Vienna, Dera leader was killed and 30 others injured in a clash at a Sikh temple (Gurdwara), provoked by a dispute over a sermon being given by a priest (May 24). The Vienna incident provoked large-scale violence in Punjab, in which protestors set afire train coaches, buses and clashed with police, prompting the authorities to impose curfew in Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Phagwara and Hoshiarpur. The army was called in Jalandhar and Phagwara. Protestors also blocked road and rail traffic at several places in Punjab. Dera sect and Shiromani Akali Dal also called for a shutdown strike. As a precautionary measure, the Delhi-Lahore bus service was stopped at Ludhiana. At least two persons were killed and several injured (May 25).
Singh was probably not prepared that in his first statement he would have to express his distress over clashes in Punjab. Expressing concern, in a message, Singh said: â€œI am deeply distressed by the outbreak of violence in Punjab following certain incidents in Vienna, Austria. Whatever the provocation, it is important to maintain peace and harmony among different sections of the people. Sikhism preaches tolerance and harmony.â€ â€œI appeal to all sections of the people in Punjab to abjure violence and maintain peace. In areas where curfew has been imposed, it is necessary that people should go back to their homes and allow the security forces to restore law and order. I sincerely appeal to the people of Punjab to heed this message and help the authorities restore peace and order,â€ he said.
External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna said that the Vienna-incident was a â€œmatter of deep concern and regret.â€ Expressing â€œdeep condolencesâ€ at passing away of Dera leader, Krishna said that Indian embassy in Vienna was in â€œclose contact with the Austrian Foreign Office, the Viennese police and the Austrian authorities.â€ â€œWe are receiving the cooperation of the Austrian authorities and are determined to ensure that the perpetrators of this completely mindless and wanton attack are brought to justice,â€ he said.
On his part, soon after assuming office, Home Minister P. Chidambaram said that situation in Punjab was â€œnot quite normal.â€ â€œWe have already provided 14 companies (1,400 personnel) of paramilitary forces. They are already in place since morning. Eleven more (companies) are moving. We have also provided a helicopter to the state government,â€ he said.
News of UPA ministers beginning work was overshadowed by headlines about riots and violence in Punjab, something that Singh and his new cabinet were certainly not prepared for!