We always knew the Prime Minister had a mind of his own. Now, we know he’s finally added some muscle. When the history of Manmohan Singh’s prime ministership is written, the week of the 60th anniversary of Indian Independence will go down as the period when the PM may have finally celebrated his personal liberation. By dramatically daring the Left to withdraw support over the Indo-US nuclear deal, he finally drew a lakshman rekha in his relationship. The big question will now have to be answered in the weeks ahead: was this only a fleeting moment of muscle-flexing madness or is this a genuine turning point in the relations between Singh and his Left ‘allies’, a moment when the Prime Minister finally realised the power and weight of the PM’s office?
In a sense, a parallel can be drawn between Singh and his predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee. In his first term in office in 1998, Vajpayee did not enjoy the freedom to choose his own cabinet, which is why Jaswant Singh was kept out from the finance ministry on the firm instructions of the RSS chief KS Sudarshan. It was only in 2002 when Vajpayee had been PM for four years that he was able to make the shift in North Block without consulting the Sangh leadership.
Prakash Karat is not Sudarshan (thank god for that). He is an articulate, scholarly Leftist, who is careful with his choice of words, has written and edited three books apart from being on the editorial board of The Marxist. As a student leader at JNU, he was twice arrested and spent eight days in jail during the Emergency. Known for his personal integrity, he has been a permanent fixture in the party’s central decision-making bodies for three decades. It’s a curriculum vitae that is impressive enough for him to be one of the youngest general secretaries of the CPI(M). Unfortunately, these qualities are not enough for him to be seen as a leader suited for the age of coalition politics, where ideological dogmatism must necessarily be reconciled with shining pragmatism.
Contrast Karat’s tenure with his predecessor Harkishen Singh Surjeet, a communist who believed that politics was the art of the possible. His critics saw him as a deal-maker, but at the same time, there was a recognition of the genial Sardarji’s immense utility to stitch together coalitions. Karat, on the other hand, has had a more doctrinaire approach. Then, whether it is reading out the riot act to squabbling Kerala communists, sending out periodic warnings to the UPA government, or even denying the Left’s very own Somnath Chatterjee a shot at presidency, Karat’s style of leadership has been more like a boarding school headmaster than a party leader. And while he might have restored a moral gravitas to the Left, he seems to lack the common touch that is vital to engage in mass politics, especially when circumstances have made him one of the most powerful politicians in the country.
Perhaps, Karat still carries the ideological baggage of history which has allowed the Indian Left to remain frozen in time. As an apparatchik of the party at the central level, Karat did not have to contest an election every five years and make any adjustments in his political style or beliefs to suit the electorate. For the Left too, there has never been a persistent demand to look beyond its immediate political goals in Bengal and Kerala. The Bengal communists, and to a lesser extent, their Kerala brethren, adjusted to coalition politics because they needed to. A Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee in West Bengal needed foreign direct investment because he was in a competitive environment. The CPI(M) central leadership had no such compulsions. So much easier to write stirring editorials in People’s Democracy and dismiss foreign investment as neo-colonialism. An elitist debating society in New Delhi versus a pragmatic government in Kolkata: the Left appeared comfortable with the dichotomy (and the hypocrisy) of the situation.
<b1>The year 2004 changed all that. In a remarkable psephological accident — it can only be described as such — the Left found itself in the vantage position of being able to shape the contours of the new government, despite having got barely 5 per cent of the popular vote. A hung Parliament gave the Left the opportunity to play a decisive role in government by sitting at the political high table. Three years later, it is apparent that the Left saw the split verdict as an opportunity to exercise virtual veto power on the UPA government. The CPI might have liked to join the Centre, the CPI(M) was wiser: why not exercise power without carrying the odour of responsibility? Then on, whether it is public sector disinvestment, insurance and pension reform, banking or labour reform or, for the matter, civil aviation restructuring, the Left has sought to dictate terms to the Centre.
Ironically, while more than 20 state governments have favoured pension reform, the move has been stalled simply because the Left leaders at the Centre are disapproving. Coal sector reform has been stalled because the Left-run coal sector unions will not allow it. Labour reform, so desperately needed, has been prevented, again because the Left fears that it will lead to a loosening of its control over organised labour.
That the Left would push its economic agenda was to be expected: opposition to market economics has been fundamental to the Left identity. The shift that has taken place is that the Left’s opposition has now moved from the economic to the political. The presidential election provided the clearest example of just how much three years of pussyfooting by the UPA had emboldened the Left. Virtually, every candidate of the UPA was vetoed by the Left, further undermining the authority of the ruling arrangement. If a Shivraj Patil could be rejected because of his proximity to Sathya Sai Baba and a Karan Singh because he headed a spiritual ‘Hindu’ body, then it was apparent that the Left was determined to leave its ideological imprint on all levels of governance.
The Left opposition to the Indo-US nuclear deal must again be seen as part of its attempt to impose its ideology on the country’s political agenda. This is not about the details of the 123 agreement any longer, not even about a robust discussion on the country’s energy needs, this is simply now about the unseen ‘dangers’ of forging a closer strategic relationship with the ‘Evil Empire’ in Washington. For Left ideologues who have spent a lifetime seeing the world through the prism of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union has not meant the end of ideology. If anything, it has reinforced their belief that the Indian communists remain the last bastion against the ‘Americanisation’ of the world. While the ideological debate might make interesting listening at a late-night meeting on the JNU campus, its relevance in contemporary political context is less appetising. It reflects an unwillingness to grow up, to recognise that while one has the legitimate right to oppose, the nature of the opposition cannot be such that it begins to resemble a spoilt brat who is being denied the entire cake of power.
The Left is now faced with a stark choice: either it learns to co-exist in coalitional politics through a process of give and take. Or withdraws support, brings down the government and is reduced to a member of a Third Front rump. Or worse still, suffers the embarrassment of getting phone calls from the original ‘Enemy No. 1’ LK Advani seeking support for joint action. Maybe Karat and friends need to realise that Parliament isn’t a college campus.
Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-chief, CNN IBN and IBN 7