Nothing is meaningless in the higher reaches of power.
There have been four occasions on which a national government has crumbled because an ally decided to pull the rug. In 1979 Mrs Indira Gandhi withdrew support from Charan Singh as suddenly as she had given it; there was no public word of explanation for either decision. In 1991 Rajiv Gandhi brought down Chandra Shekhar's government because, officially, two constables from Haryana were hovering outside his door. In 1997 and 1998 Congress president Sitaram Kesri punctured H.D. Deve Gowda and Inder Gujral, in turn, for reasons he carried with him to his pyre. But each decision had a point to make. Mrs Gandhi exposed the fractious arrogance of a bunch of politicians who thought they had destroyed her for ever. Kesri, rather fatuously, thought he could become Prime Minister after forcing an election.
Compared to such history, Sharad Pawar's fuss about seating arrangements at Cabinet meetings is serious and pertinent. It is not the quality of the upholstery that is in question, but the nature of power in a coalition. He has more than one reason for choosing this moment to provoke turbulence in the UPA alliance.
It is not only the absence of Pranab Mukherjee from this government that has destabilised the balance, but also the potential presence of Rahul Gandhi. For some weeks now it has been obvious that the transition process in Congress has begun. It does not really matter where Rahul Gandhi sits in the Cabinet room when he joins it; power has shifted towards him already. Dr Manmohan Singh is being timed out by his own party.
When Congress was a vote-winner, allies swallowed their pride and trudged along. But it is obvious now that Congress stock is falling. Alternative pastures have acquired a green tinge.
Pranab Mukherjee was the first veteran to declare publicly that he would not serve in a Rahul Gandhi administration. He did so politely, and even with grace; but he did not waver in his decision. He has now moved up to first citizen of the Republic. Dr Singh will obviously retire from politics when the change comes. Sharad Pawar refused to countenance Sonia Gandhi as Congress leader after Rajiv Gandhi's assassination; and opposed the move when she had the chance to become PM in 2004. Congress has said plainly enough that Rahul Gandhi will lead the party in the next general elections; and therefore become PM if Congress is in a position to lead a majority coalition. For Pawar this is, therefore, the moment of departure, unless he has become a different person. Why should anyone be surprised at his discomfort? Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Dr Manmohan Singh are trying to mollify Pawar with vacuous assurances not because they really do believe that he is wise, sagacious and so on, but because they want the transition to be endorsed by allies. Pawar has pre-empted the Congress manoeuvre.
He has used a public argument that is valid. For the eight years of the UPA experiment, Congress has maximised its own strength in office and minimised that of its allies. It has gone to the extent of taking invaluable support from leaders like Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayawati and now even its faithful Lalu Prasad Yadav without offering even a portfolio in return. Those parties that were included in Cabinet were placed on the second rung of government: the top ministries went only to Congress.
Pawar was Chief Minister of Maharashtra when most of today's Cabinet were not even as important as an MLA. He got agriculture; much as a child is handed a lollipop and told to run off and play while the elders decide on serious issues of household management. He and other allies have been excluded completely from the disbursement of the levers of power. Every governor, for instance, is a Congress loyalist. Nor has Pawar forgotten that in 2004 he was forced to accept a Congress CM in Maharashtra despite having the edge in MLA numbers.
There is a second answer to "why now?". This moment has also been determined by the larger context of political assessment. When Congress was a vote-winner, allies swallowed their pride and trudged along. But it is obvious now that Congress stock is falling. Alternative pastures have acquired a green tinge.
The first impact of this turbulence will be felt in Maharashtra. No one may say this publicly, but both Shiv Sena and Congress are worried that Pawar may work out either a formal or an informal alliance with the BJP before the next elections. The killer part of this change is that Sena and Congress cannot be partners. The Sena is moving swiftly to heal its internal family rift in the face of this possibility.
Has Pawar thought through the consequences? Or is this merely upmanship that will be sorted out? He is too mature a politician to risk anything without forethought. He can see an itch in the air. Mamata Banerjee is yearning for an early election, and she will fight it alone. Mulayam Singh Yadav has been telling his party to prepare for 2013. The UPA band is slowly beginning to disband. The time has come for realpolitik.
There is nothing personal in the position of the chair.