The state of the UPA government is a bit like a bad old Ajit joke about liquid oxygen: liquid usse jeene nahi deta, oxygen usse marne nahi deta (liquid doesn’t let it live, oxygen doesn’t let it die). Substitute uranium for liquid oxygen and Prakash Karat in the role of Ajit and the plight of Manmohan Singh’s government is apparent. The Indo-US nuclear deal may have been the cause of the latest flashpoint, but the reality is that the Left-UPA relationship has long since reached the point of no-return. Perhaps, the astonishing part is that it’s taken as long as four years for the realisation to dawn that the UPA-Left equation was perhaps untenable to begin with.
Flashback to the CPI(M) manifesto for the 2004 general elections. While the BJP was projected as ‘enemy number one’, there was harsh criticism of the Congress too. Claiming that the Congress’s policies were no alternative to BJP rule, it said: “The Congress party ruled over the country for four decades. Its policies and record of government contributed to the present plight of the people and the country. Its failure to strengthen the foundations of democracy, secularism, federalism and the anti-people policies laid the basis for the rise of the BJP and its coalition government.”
This stinging attack is hardly surprising. In the three states where the Left is in power, the Congress remains its principal rival. Nor is this ‘normal’ political rivalry: the adversarial relationship on the ground with the Congress is bitter and acrimonious, based on decades of ill-will and mutual distrust.
If the two sides chose to still partner each other in the summer of 2004 it was primarily because of the doctrine of necessity, spurred by the logic of numbers. With the UPA having 218 members in the 543-member 14th Lok Sabha, the Congress-led alliance needed the 60 members of the Left to cross the half-way mark. When the CPI(M) overruled the CPI and decided not to actually join the government, the first seeds of trouble were sown. Power without responsibility is always dangerous: in politics, especially in a coalition arrangement, it is a recipe for disaster, as it allows a party to exercise exaggerated influence without any care for the consequences.
But it wasn’t just the numbers that saw the UPA and the Left cosy up to each other. On the one hand, there was a blind hatred for the ‘communal’ BJP which was seen as enough reason to overlook the very basic differences that exist on the ground. On the other, there was also a substantial section of the old Nehruvians within the Congress who still saw the Left as being potential fellow travellers. These unreconstructed Nehruvians — best exemplified by Mani Shankar Aiyar — genuinely seemed to believe that the core principles of the Nehruvian ideology — secularism, socialism, non-alignment — were part of a shared legacy with the Left, based on a fierce opposition to the BJP’s fundamentalism and America’s imperialism.
Unfortunately, these secular ‘warriors’ failed to recognise that the Left’s ideological fervour was based on a sense of self-righteous moral superiority to the rest of the political class and had no place for the Congress’s accommodative spirit. This kind of dogmatic attitude allows virtually no space for dialogue or compromise, so critical while running a coalition government. So, for example, while the Left’s ideology is gradually becoming irrelevant, the red cadres have not lost their commitment to their core belief system. Antipathy to America, for example, is not simply a reflex anti-Bush attitude, it is part of a Cold War worldview that has been shaped over decades. Again, the determined fight against the market economy is based on the Left’s unswerving belief that global capital is an ‘evil’ influence on society.
No one exemplifies this ideological absolutism more than Karat. Four years ago, the CPI(M) leader was embraced by 10 Janpath because he was blessed with the qualities that Sonia Gandhi seems to appreciate in a politician: honest, straightforward, secular, and dare one say, an English-speaking PLU (in sharp contrast to an ‘outsider’ like the wily Amar Singh). Ironically, four years later, some of the qualities that made Karat an attractive option for the Congress leadership now make him such a difficult person to deal with. Call it political naiveté or a misreading of the situation, but the UPA leadership has gone horribly wrong in underestimating the force of Karat’s ideological commitment. In a sense, this also reveals the limitations of the present ruling arrangement. As an ‘accidental’ politician, the PM has been out of place in the hurly burly of alliance politics which demands astute political management, while Sonia Gandhi too has shown herself unwilling to confront hostile allies.
The time though for well-intentioned pussyfooting is surely over. Four years ago, Gandhi’s ‘inner voice’ convinced her that she must not be the PM, she must now introspect again: how long can a marriage of convenience last when the bride and the groom can no longer bear to stay in the same house. In real life, it requires a courtroom to intervene to end the relationship. In a democracy, the court of the people is the only way forward.
The writer is Editor-in-Chief, IBN Network