Special to the tribune
History rarely offers exact parallels, but British politicians from the ruling coalition could benefit from India’s experience of running a government with the support of another minority party. A marriage of convenience that helps a political party to stay in power is not necessarily inspiring, nor attractive, but that is exactly what the UK is experiencing today and what India experienced in the past.
Just as Manmohan Singh, in his first term as the Prime Minister, depended on the support of the Communists to stay in power, Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron today depends for his survival on Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.
Even the numbers are similar. In 2004, the Manmohan-led UPA survived with the help of some 60 Communist MPs. In the UK today, Cameron’s Conservative-led coalition relies on the support of 57 Left leaning Lib Dems.
The difference between India then and the UK now is that Manmohan’s Communist supporters did not join the government and chose to support him from outside the formal grouping of the council of ministers.
Since there were no Communist ministers, the beauty of this arrangement was that any dissatisfaction among Communist backbench MPs would not lead to resignations among comrade ministers and the collapse of the government.
No such luxury is available for the coalition running today’s government in the UK. In the event of a backbench rebellion among Lib Dem MPs, leading to the resignation of Lib Dem ministers, the government would collapse as surely as night follows day.
As of now, there are plenty of issues that divide rank and file Lib Dems and their MPs from their Conservative counterparts. For example, the Lib Dems want closer integration with Europe and the scrapping of the Trident submarine-based nuclear deterrent.
Closer to home, serious differences have emerged over the issue of raising capital gains tax. The Lib Dems are all for boosting this tax from the current level of 18 per cent to 40 per cent and more. The problem for the coalition is that any such tax increase will alienate a huge number of Conservative supporters.
The Conservatives have been traditionally seen as a party sympathetic to business and property owners. The impact of any increase in capital gains tax will thus fall largely on business interests and property owners, who are the bedrock of Conservative supporters.
Given these fundamental differences between the coalition partners, and the scope for serious future disagreements, much depends on the relationship at the top between Cameron and Clegg.
This is a partnership for which there are few parallels worldwide. In India the examples of VP Singh and Devi Lal spring to mind, as do Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani, but India’s examples lack the unique qualities that bind the British Prime Minister and his deputy.
At one level, they are both very similar. Indeed commentators describe them as two peas in a pod, or Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Cameron went to Eton and Oxford, Clegg went to Westminster and Cambridge.
They are of the same age (43), come from similar privileged and moneyed backgrounds and are married to attractive women who also come from wealthy upper-class families.
They are also so similar in looks and the clothes they wear, brown hair, wide foreheads and expensive suits, so similar in physique and physical gestures deployed in speeches, that one analyst suggested that from now on they should be seen as a brand new single entity known as Cleggeron.
To date, each man has been supportive of the other, but it remains to be seen whether Cleggeron can survive the stresses and strains of coalition politics. The Lib Dems are naturally and traditionally more sympathetic to Left wing causes, just as the Conservatives swing to the right. So there is an obvious ideological divide that the Labour opposition will play on and try to exploit in the weeks and months ahead.
But there are other important differences as well on foreign policy that extend beyond the issue of the UK’s future relationship with Europe.
When it comes to India, both Lib Dems and Conservatives are keen to develop what they describe as a special relationship with South Asia’s emerging superpower. This is underpinned by the assessment of UK Foreign Office mandarins who say, “We need to better recognise India’s rising global influence and work closely with the Indian government to address the many challenges facing South Asia.”
India’s strategic capability, however, jars with the Lib Dems who have an ideological aversion to nuclear weapons. Senior members of the party say India should live up to its responsibilities as a responsible nuclear power by immediately signing up to the NPT, Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The Conservatives may share the same view in principle, but they are not prepared to make a song and dance about it. They are realistic enough to understand that India will never sign the NPT until and unless there is credible and verifiable nuclear disarmament among existing nuclear weapons powers.
The nuclear issue is unlikely to be a priority when new British Foreign Secretary William Hague, a Conservative, visits Delhi before this coming October’s Commonwealth Games. His business enhancing trip is expected to focus on trade with renewed emphasis on promoting collaboration in green-energy technologies.
Hague may well invite inputs from the Lib Dems before he leaves for Delhi, but, when all is said and done, it is the larger party’s view on India that is more significant. Cleggeron may prevail when it comes to domestic policy issues, including tax, but when the UK’s foreign interests are concerned, the Conservatives seem to be ahead of the Liberal Democrats.