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Monday, Sep 23, 2019

Counterpoint | Who’s Left? Who’s right?

The Left’s opposition is to the fact that India is doing business with America, writes Vir Sanghvi.

columns Updated: Apr 02, 2008 16:07 IST

I’m sorry if I’ve become a bit of a bore on the subject of the Left. And apologies for the second successive column on the same subject. But at a time when the very survival of the government of India seems at stake because of the attitude of the Communist parties, it is hard to write about anything else.

This week, I have no cohesive thesis to offer — just a few random thoughts.

It is difficult to think of a single time when the media have been so united in their condemnation of a political party as we are today. The last time that nearly every major columnist or editorial writer agreed on something was during the Gujarat riots when we all condemned Narendra Modi.

If you look at the HT’s roster of columnists, there is a rare unanimity in their disapproval of the behaviour of the Left. No matter who it is — AG Noorani, Rajdeep Sardesai, Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Barkha Dutt, Prem Shankar Jha or Sagarika Ghose — their views are roughly the same. The only HT columnist of consequence who hasn’t attacked the Left yet is Sitaram Yechury and he’s hardly likely to call Prakash Karat names in print.

And yet, none of this seems to have made the slightest difference to the Left’s stance. Nor have the many opinion polls that demonstrate widespread support for the Prime Minister influenced the CPM’s position.

During the Gujarat riots — when we were all agreed on Narendra Modi’s responsibility for the massacres — the BJP was visibly shaken by the condemnation. Modi himself tried hard to give us his side of the story.

But the Left doesn’t care. Karat and his colleagues must be the most self-assured men and women in Indian politics, so sure that they are right and we are all wrong that their guiding principle remains pure stubbornness.<b1>

Whenever the middle class attacks a politician, the usual defensive response from the target is: “But these are not my voters. The masses don’t really agree with the criticisms.”

And to a large extent — no matter how frustrating we might find this position — the politicians are right. We’ve spent so many years attacking Lalu Prasad Yadav but it has made little difference to his hardcore vote bank. Mulayam Singh Yadav would always say that English newspapers did not matter to his voters. And regardless of what we write about Mayawati or Jayalalithaa, their supporters will turn out to vote for them.

The interesting thing about the Left’s response is that it does not follow the predictable “I have mass electoral support” pattern. The men who ignore the middle class criticism are themselves middle class people who are of no electoral consequence.

Prakash Karat does not have Lalu Yadav’s political base. AB Bardhan’s party breaks into a jig every time it gets more than a dozen seats in Parliament.

Those Left leaders who do have to fight and win elections — Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and VS Achuthanandan — have been the least publicly opposed to the nuclear deal. The bullying rhetoric has come from people who have never fought a municipal election in their lives.

Never before in the history of Indian politics have electoral featherweights talked so big on the basis of so little.

When I wrote last week about the historical allegation that the CPI took orders from Moscow (including the directive to oppose the Quit India movement) and that the CPM was founded to support China against India during the 1962 war, little had been said about the Left’s extra-national loyalties.

Since then, many politicians and newspapers have suggested that there is a strange coincidence of timing between China’s attempts to scuttle the nuclear deal and the Left’s sudden decision to turn it into a make-or-break issue for the government.

I have to say I do not accept the argument that the Left is functioning at China’s behest. I disagree with almost everything that Prakash Karat says these days, but I do not, for a moment, question his sincerity or his motives.

Nevertheless, history has a way of playing tricks on us. When India went nuclear, most parties welcomed the tests. The exception was the CPM, which opposed the decision to weaponise our nuclear capability. And the Indian Left and its fellow travellers have traditionally been anti-nuclear.

How strange then to hear the Left oppose the nuclear deal on the grounds that we would have to sacrifice our nuclear capability and would not be allowed to conduct more nuclear tests.

So you’re damned if you do, and damned if you can’t.

Whenever the Left talks of India’s sovereignty and of the danger of entering into a long-term open-ended contract with a superpower, I always think back to 1971 when Indira Gandhi did exactly that — and the Left stood up and cheered.

In 1971, with America on Pakistan’s side and a war over East Pakistan looming, Mrs Gandhi turned to Moscow for assistance. The Russians agreed to help, but only on the condition that India signed a long-term treaty of friendship.

There was widespread criticism of this treaty and many foreign policy experts made the obvious point: how can you claim to be non-aligned and neutral in the battle between the superpowers when you’ve signed a friendship treaty with one of them?

No matter how loudly Mr Bardhan talks about India’s sovereignty in 2007, his party took the opposite stand in 1971. At that stage, the CPI thought the treaty was a wonderful idea and congratulated the government for signing it.

Even if you do not take the stand that the CPI’s enthusiasm for the treaty was motivated by the fact that it took money and orders from the Kremlin, there is still the problem of logical consistency.

Why was it okay to sign a treaty with Russia? And why is it not okay to sign a treaty with America?

I do not claim to be an expert on the nuclear deal. In fact, I’m not even sure I understand it completely. But two things seem clear. The first is that the BJP’s opposition to the deal is insincere and cynical. Every civil servant will tell you how the BJP would have grabbed a similar deal. And we have Strobe Talbott’s word that Jaswant Singh had actually agreed to sign the CTBT while his government was misleading Parliament.

The second thing is that with each passing day, I’m more and more convinced that the Left’s opposition is not to the nuclear deal itself but to the fact that India is doing business with America. If we had signed a similar deal with some other country, my guess is that the Left would have found it easier to accept.

When we talk about the Left, we often forget that its leaders are men and women whose ideas were formed in the Cold War era. In those days, you had to make a choice between America and the Communist world. (Unless, like India, you chose to be non-aligned.) These are people who made that choice and who decided that they would spend their lives opposing America.

The Cold War ended nearly two decades ago, and their side lost. But Left leaders have not forgiven America for winning and nor have they given up on their visceral hatred of the US and what it represents.

The anger and the passion that we see the leaders of the Left demonstrate these days stem only partly from the clauses of the treaty. Much of it has a much deeper origin. Communism may be dead all over the world. But these are people who have never given up the battle.

In that sense, they are like those hate-filled suicide bombers on West Bank or on the streets of Baghdad who don’t care about the issues but only seek to damage America in the name of Allah. Except that these guys operate in the name of Karl Marx, and far from being self-sacrificing suicide bombers, it is our stability that they want to blow up.

And finally, don’t you sometimes wonder about the surreal nature of this political crisis? No ordinary person understands what the nuclear deal is all about. None of us knows how our lives will be better if India agrees to America’s terms. If the deal collapses, none of us really thinks that the failure will impact our daily lives.

And yet, the Prime Minister has staked the future of his government and, therefore, India’s stability and our current prosperity on a deal that nobody really cares about.

The only people who do seem to care are the Communists. They care enough to bring this government down and throw our lives into turmoil.

How bizarre it is that our future depends on something we neither understand nor care about!

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First Published: Aug 26, 2007 00:47 IST