India: Why the government is not falling

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's United Progressive Alliance government is unlikely to fall, despite a pullout by a key ally that puts the coalition in the minority in parliament, various experts speculate.

Here's why Singh's moves to reboot economic reforms by hiking diesel prices and opening up the "multibrand" retail sector to foreign investment from companies like Walmart are looking savvy. Though both measures have nominally given the opposition a new issue to play with -- resulting in a nationwide general strike Thursday -- the controversy has finally driven corruption allegations related to the coal ministry off the front pages. 

And despite all the sound and fury, it doesn't look like the Congress will have to pay the piper.

The exit of Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress (TMC) leaves Singh short of a majority by 19 seats. But according to the Hindustan Times, in five out of six possible scenarios the government will survive with so-called "outside support" -- from parties that won't join the UPA outright but won't pull them down either.

Virtually the only way that Singh's government will actually fall, triggering a new election, is if not only Banerjee's TMC, but also Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party (SP) and Mayawati Kumari's Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) actively vote against the coalition continuing in power, rather than abstaining.  (Abstentions lower the bar for a majority, making the support of others more important).

There are various reasons that scenario is unlikely.

(1) The SP and BSP are mortal enemies, contesting for the loyalty of voters in Uttar Pradesh. So for them to join together to pull down Singh's government is improbable. More likely, one will see joining Singh as a chance to gain leverage over the other. The SP, especially, which recently came to power in Uttar Pradesh, can use this opportunity to wrangle some central government largesse for the state, which will in turn pay off in the next campaign.

(2) The Congress Party also has unspoken leverage over both the SP and BSP because of ongoing criminal investigations, according to the Mail Today. Mayawati has faced a probe from the Central Bureau of Investigation related to construction of the so-called "Taj corridor" infrastructure project near the famous Taj Mahal, while Yadav faces a probe into his family assets. Frozen for now, either case could be rejuvenated by a vindictive enemy. "The CBI is a very formidable instrument in the hands of the Congress," the paper quotes the Uttar Pradesh state president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as saying.

(3) Timing is everything. Elections campaigns are costly affairs in India, and while Banerjee's TMC has had more than a year to replenish the coffers following her victory in May 2011, the SP and BSP are fresh off a hard-fought election that saw the SP take a clear majority in Uttar Pradesh this March. That means Yadav, in particular, will likely want to avoid rocking the boat, now that his party has an opportunity to earn money and dispense patronage at the state level.  

(4) The Congress is good at this game.  So far, the party has said there's no wiggle room on the core issues of the dispute.  But they've offered face-saving measures to increase the number of subsidized cooking gas cylinders allotted to Indian families. And they've hinted that they may have factored in such resistance, and a partial rollback, when they boosted the diesel prices to begin with.