Around the time when the UPA and the Left were putting together a committee to discuss the nuclear deal, a prominent leader from Bihar decided he wouldn’t have anything to do with the panel. “If they insist, I’ll make some excuse to stay out,” he told a friend.
“But why?” the friend asked. The leader pointed to his photograph with former US President Bill Clinton in his living room and said: “Had it been with (George) Bush, I’d have dumped it in the attic.”
The plaintive cry he couched in innuendo now rings loud and clear across the Left-UPA spectrum and beyond. In fact, the fledgling United National Progressive Alliance, currently in discussions with the Communists, wouldn’t mind lending some extra decibels to concerns over the possible Muslim response to the deal the UPA wants with the Bush administration.
<b1>Not that the Congress leadership is oblivious of the Muslim angle to the standoff with the Left which transcended its anti-imperialistic opposition of the US by marking a presence at the Samajwadi Party’s Mumbai rally after New Delhi’s vote against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The show of strength was meant to paint the UPA as a partner in Bush’s “anti-Muslim” pursuits.
For this reason perhaps, the Congress co-opted Water Resources Minister Saifuddin Soz in the UPA team that is discussing the nuclear agreement with the Left. Even Lalu Prasad Yadav had his electoral script ready before walking into the talks with the Communists. “It’s a bijli-paani-roti-rozgaar issue,” he said.
Lalu’s pro-people translation of the 123 Agreement gave the UPA its best argument against the Left that rejected the deal as a US-laid trap to subvert Indian sovereignty. He made the issue comprehensible for village India: The pact would help meet the energy needs, linked to which is agriculture production and agro-industry where farmers and farm workers will have alternative job opportunities.
But sceptics say “secular fundamentalists” would use election-time rhetoric to make UPA the target of the Muslim distrust of Bush. “In politics, one is known by the company one keeps,” said a Congress MP. It is for this reason and out of fear of early polls that some UPA allies are seeking to distance themselves from the deal.
From his standpoint, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s disenchantment with the alliance partners’ rethink on the deal is valid. But politics isn’t about constants. It’s about change, even expediency. An Opposition member of the Rajya Sabha made the point rather tellingly at a recent meeting with the PM: “The allies aren’t against you; they are against early elections.”
Nothing could have explained better the volte-face by DMK’s M. Karunanidhi after his party backed the deal in the Cabinet. His retrospective wisdom against the pact was rooted in concerns shared with Lalu and NCP’s Sharad Pawar. They cannot back an agreement that’s at once a death wish.
The allies extended the same compelling logic in internal UPA consultations: “So long as we have the government, there is scope for operationalising the deal; if it collapses, the deal is as good as dead.” The Left, as wary of facing early polls as others, scored a brownie point by default.
To drive home the advantage, Left leaders such as A.B. Bardhan lent their own Muslim angle to the deal. The CPI general secretary alleged the PM hasn’t so far visited a major Muslim country, forgetting Singh’s trip with Rahul Gandhi to Afghanistan where India is a major partner in the reconstruction effort.
“They want to make the deal synonymous with President Bush,” lamented a Congress leader. He said the UPA must decipher the complex issue for the “aam aadmi”. It must also move fast on the Sachar panel’s roadmap to ensure social justice for minorities.