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Political Allies: The Politics of Sticking Together & Sticking Out

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By Raunaq Pradhan:

On April 27, 2010, courtesy a historic ruling by Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar, sections of the Opposition moved cut motions on the demand for grants which are not discussed in the House. However, as the division of votes showed – 289 for and 201 against – the challenge did not really stretch the government.

Yet as the second United Progressive Alliance Government completes one year in office, it must fervently hope that such tests do not come up more often. For, the final scores point as much to the disarray in the Opposition as to the government’s precarious numbers. Take away the Bahujan Samaj Party’s 21 MPs, and it is immediately apparent that UPA-II is a minority regime dependent on fly-by-night supporters to keep it in power.

The irony is difficult to miss. When the Congress breached the 200-mark in the May 2009 election, the consensus in the opinion-making class was that freed of Left support, UPA-II was assured of a trouble-free five-year term. As if to confirm the impression, the Congress was besieged by post-poll suitors. Smaller parties like the Bodoland People’s Front and the Sikkim Democratic Front quickly signed up to be a part of the ruling alliance. Yet many more queued up outside 7, Race Course Road : the Samajwadi Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Janata Dal (secular) and the BSP. All four parties sent letters of support to Rashtrapati Bhawan, enabling Manmohan Singh to take the oath of office with numbers upwards of 300.

More make-believe than real:

In truth, the numbers were more make-believe than real. All four external supporters had had a bitter falling out with the Congress. Besides, three out of the four, the SP, the BSP and the RJD, were from the heartland, where the compulsions of State elections would soon take over from the politics of Central give and take, rendering even a medium-term understanding with the Congress unviable. But that was in the future. For now, the Congress was happy to bask in the overwhelming show of hands. The illusion of strong outside support won over the hard reality of actual numbers.

As a consequence, Congress strategists opted for a minimalist government – not in terms of ministerial strength but in terms of party participation. Only five parties were sworn in with the Congress. They were: the Trinamool Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the National Conference and the Indian Union Muslim League. The combined strength of the five parties in government was only 51. Of course, there were members of the UPA who were not in government, among them the All-India Majlis-E-Itehadul Muslimmen, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, the SDF, the BPF, Kerala Congress (Mani) and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (no longer in UPA). But even with all of them on board, the UPA was short of a clear majority, and worse, without a steady and bankable external ally.

Contrast this situation with the real comfort of numbers through much of the UPA’s first term. UPA-I started out as a pre-poll alliance of 12 parties which together won 219 seats – only a few seats more than what the Congress on its own picked up five years later. But in compensation the alliance got the rock-solid backing of the Left Front’s 60-odd MPs. The Left cover rendered immaterial all other props. As in 2009, the SP and the BSP were only too keen to join the UPA-I bandwagon, but whether they did so or not had no bearing on the government’s stability.

Over the next four years, the Congress had its share of troubles – both with its UPA partners and its external allies. The Telangana Rashtra Samithi quit the UPA in 2006 followed by the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in 2007. The Congress-BSP relations took a downturn in U.P. However, thanks to the overarching Left umbrella, UPA-I never once went into the danger zone. It was only in July 2008, when the Left finally withdrew support over the Indo-U.S. civil-nuclear deal, that UPA-I felt the heat of its dwindling numbers. The Congress’ frantic search for a replacement brought the SP to its doors, and though Amar Singh and Mulayam Singh bailed out the government during the July 22 vote of confidence, their support came at a huge cost. Predictably the Congress-SP pact came undone before the April-May 2009 general election.

Data compiled by PRS Legislative research show that during the term of UPA-I, the Lok Sabha Speaker called for a division of votes on 21 occasions. Twenty of these were non-serious divisions, posing no threat whatever to the government. The only time division portended danger was after the Left’s withdrawal. The division of numbers on July 22, 2008, the day Prime Minister Manmohan Singh tested his majority in the House, was: 275 for and 256 against. It was a close shave for the government, but fortunately for UPA-I, its first and only serious test came towards the end of its term – with just eight months left for the general election. As against this, the UPA-II government’s first big test came within a year of taking office.

The Congress and the Left had a tension-filled relationship. But because the Left had a clear agenda and was upfront about the redlines, the Congress was spared nasty surprises. The Left was also committed to the Manmohan Singh government in a way its current external allies are not. The Left kept the government going for four years. On the other hand, the SP, the BSP and the RJD are fickle allies who will keep the Congress on edge if only to be able to strike last-minute deals. The Congress-SP-BSP-RJD understanding, which was dramatically visible at the time of the formation of the UPA-II government, came unstuck inside of a year over the Women’s Reservation Bill. Yet only a month later, with the cut motions slated to come up in the Lok Sabha, the BSP was ready with its rescue act. The SP and the RJD too staged a walkout, allowing the government to pull off an easy victory. What is the real story behind these intriguing moves? No one knows for sure. Will these parties stick around the next time division is called? No one knows for sure. But this much is obvious: The Congress can lower its guard only at its peril.

Within UPA-II, the odd behaviour of the Trinamool Congress and the strained relationship between the Congress and the NCP have added to the Congress’ troubles. Mamata Banerjee is spoiling for a fight, and though logic strongly dictates a Congress-TC pact for the coming State election, she can never be trusted not to up and quit. She seems to have convinced herself that she can win that election all by herself. If that happens, the Congress’ dependence on the SP-BSP-RJD trio will increase, making the party more vulnerable to pulls and pressures. The NCP, which was the target of much IPL-related mud-slinging, is looking to get back at its senior partner.

To be sure, the Congress’ opponents are in far worse shape. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance has been haemorrhaging so much, there is little left of it. The BJP has currently only three allies: the Shiv Sena, the Akali Dal and the Janata Dal (U). The Left has a tough election to fight in West Bengal while the other parties are scattered. More importantly, there is simply no one around who has the energy to fight a general election so soon after the last one. All of which suggests that UPA-II will have near fatal accidents, die many deaths, and yet survive for some time to come because of the sorrier state of its opponents.

Image: http://thenewdimension.wordpress.com/2010/05/18/upa-2-completes-1-year-lets-rate-it/

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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