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Left in a time warp

We shouldn't be saying no to the nuclear deal if it is largely on our terms and will get us a seat at the global high table, writes Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Aug 30, 2007 15:59 IST

For decades, the Left has occupied a special place in the minds of educated Indians — outside of the two states (Bengal and Kerala) where it has a political presence and is therefore treated like any other political party.

By the time you read this, the dour faced leaders of the Left would have most likely emerged from their closed-door huddle to grudgingly allow the government one last gasp for survival. There will be warnings and admonitions, forced humour about honeymoons and divorce, a likely exit from the UPA coordination committee and a reminder that as far as the Marxists are concerned this is merely grace time; the expiry date has already been stamped across Manmohan Singh’s government.

Not for the first time, a smug air of indispensability will define the Left’s political response, making them sound more like Stalinists than Socialists.

Yet, the Marxists may want to step off their pedestal and put an ear to the ground. Why is it that an election-weary country has for the most part applauded the Prime Minister’s overdue assertion of authority, even at risk to his own office? It’s not because we all understand the complex technicalities of the nuclear deal. It’s because we are exasperated at constantly watching a government on its knees, blackmailed into submission by the Left. We would rather have a PM who shows enough leadership to draw the line even if it means another election, than a government that constantly lives in the fear of being toppled.

In a country where the middle-class loves to hate politicians and corruption is our favourite bugbear, the Left needs to ask itself why the personal probity of its leaders has not won it more fans or voters. Much has already been said about the indisputable integrity of men such as AB Bardhan and Prakash Karat. So, why is it that while the sleaze and slime of the political underbelly puts us off, we aren’t warmed by the relative virtue and scrubbed-clean morality of the Marxists?

Two reasons: For a start there is a certain pomposity to those who enjoy power without having to be responsible for how it is wielded. For too long now we have watched the Left perch prettily on the periphery of the government, enjoying influence without accountability. In the two states where it has actually had to deal with the everyday reality of governance, look at how the Chief Ministers have struggled to marry textbook diktats with the actualities of a Changing India. West Bengal’s CM is widely seen as a man who tried to weld Marxism to modernity. He was able to woo India’s biggest industrialists to his state and was famously intolerant of striking workers. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee could have easily become the face of a New Left: benevolent, yet pragmatic and benign but tough. Instead who can forget the television image of him sitting hunched over, hands trembling, like a contrite child in a corner, while his party leaders ranted on about capitalism. Kerala’s Chief Minister, an 83-year-old veteran of politics, was also treated like an errant child, pushed out of the party’s politburo for airing differences in public. It all creates an unshakable image of a party constantly in veto mode, both with its own leaders, and the government it supports. The CPM increasingly seems defined less by what it stands for and more by what it opposes, occupying a constant space of negativity.

The problem with the Left, and this brings us to the second reason for Modern India’s disdain for them, is that while their heart is in the right place, their mind is woefully out of sync with our aspirations. Miles of newsprint and acres of airtime have already been devoted to the merits and dangers of the 123 agreement. Frankly, for most of us, much of the technical jargon is gobbledygook. Yes, we care about whether India’s sovereignty will be compromised. And yes, we want to know whether America’s Hyde Act will impair our right to conduct another nuclear test. It’s not that we oppose a genuine debate within Parliament on these dimensions of the debate and don’t want clear answers to these questions. And, no matter how cynical we are about our politicians, we largely trust this government when it says there will be no deliberate sell-out of India’s independence.

But that’s not the only reason why we are so impatient with the opposition from the Left to the nuclear deal. It’s because we believe that their criticism has less to do with India’s autonomy, and much more to do with an innate anti-Americanism. For many of us, the language used by the Marxists — phrases like “imperialism” and “hegemony” — seem to have been pulled out from a cobweb-laden trunk from the attic of history. We feel as if the Marxists are anachronistic, and will drag us back in time instead of lead us forward into the future. The fact that the Left parties have clubbed their protests over the nuclear deal with criticism of other government policies seen to be Pro-America (such as joint military exercises) only confirms our belief that the resistance to the deal is less about India, and more about America.

And nothing could be more out of sync with the mood of an India on the move. We may laugh at President Bush’s moronic statements, we may oppose the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we may believe that his time in government is up. But Indians know how to distinguish between Bush and the country he governs. And the fact is that many of us have aspirations that take us westwards. It may be our children who go to university in the United States; it may be the immigrant from Gujarat who runs a motel in the Mid-west or it may be our own classmates who work on Wall Street. For many Indians, their future as global players is linked to the American dream. And quite apart from everything, most of us are utilitarian. If a nuclear deal that is largely on our terms will get us a seat at the global high table and also take care of our energy needs, why should we say no?

Certainly, our answer can’t be based on an ideology that seems immovable, and inflexible — everything that Modern India is not.

Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7