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Left out or right out?

Because most of us are convinced the Government is in thrall to the Left, we?ve failed to realise the metamorphosis that?s taken place, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Mar 20, 2006 12:58 IST

Have you noticed how the relationship between the Government and the Left has changed? I’m not talking of small subtle shifts but a sea change. Because most of us are convinced the Government is in thrall to the Left, we’ve failed to realise the metamorphosis that’s taken place.

Let’s start with the range of issues on which the Government and the Left have recently clashed. These include relations with America, the nuclear deal, Iran, airports, FDI, the Budget, PSU disinvestment and EPF interest rates. Since January 1, the CPM Politburo and the Left parties have issued nearly 25 statements severely criticising government decisions. On one occasion, there were four on the same issue in just one week!

The simple conclusion is that the distance between the Left and the Government has grown since May 2004. In some areas new differences, often crucial ones, have emerged. If FDI, disinvestment and relations with America fall into the first category, Iran, airports, the budget and EPF interest rates are part of the second.

The surprising discovery is that on all these issues the Left may have its say — and usually so volubly we’re taken in — but it’s the Government that has its way. So behind the babel of criticism, Dr Manmohan Singh has silently but surely done what he wants.

First, foreign affairs. Whilst Jyoti Basu calls Bush a terrorist, Brinda Karat calls him a killer and Prakash Karat wants him treated as a war criminal, what did the PMr do? He broke with protocol to receive Bush at the airport and called him an honoured guest. No doubt he did the same for King Abdullah but the Left don’t consider the Saudi monarch a murderer. Given their high profile campaign against Bush, the PM’s response is a slap on their face.

The differences become sharper when you consider the substance of India’s relationship with America. The Left objected to the June 2005 Indo-US Defence Deal, a month later the PM concluded the Global Democracy Initiative. They had strong reservations about the July 2005 nuclear agreement, last week the PM finalised the details. In fact, on March 2, at 11 am, Sitaram Yechuri threatened: “If the UPA government succumbs to US pressure on the nuclear deal they will have to face the consequences.” Two hours later Dr Singh called his bluff, signed the deal and boasted he had made history!

Iran is another example. In September the Left warned the Government not to vote against Iran. It did precisely that. In February they repeated the warning. Days later the PM repeated his vote. Consequently, last week Iran was referred to the Security Council, an outcome the Left wanted to avoid at all cost.

On domestic issues, the divide is yet more glaring. In December the EPF interest rate was cut to 8.5 per cent. The CPM Lok Sabha leader said: “There’s no question of accepting it at any cost.” The CPM Rajya Sabha leader said: “This is totally unacceptable. It has to be reversed.” Three months later the cut stands.

Next, Bombay and Delhi airports. The CPM accused the Government of breaching the Common Minimum Programme. Individual MPs called it “a scam”. The outcome? The Government did exactly what it wanted. Then, FDI in retail. The CPI manifesto says: “The CPI opposes FDI in retail trade.” The CPM Politburo warned of “serious deleterious effects on the economy and the life of the people”. And the result? FDI in single brand retail has been permitted and Mr Chidambaram is talking of FDI in general retail in large metros in the next three years!

And now look at what the Government is proposing: FDI in mining, increased FDI in insurance, banking de-regulation, pension reform, PSU disinvestment and, possibly, hire and fire in textiles. The Left is implacably opposed to this. But is that putting the Government off?

For the answer, consider this. Karat in Calcutta on January 19: “The sale of shares in public sector units to garner a few thousand crores is bad policy, bad economics and bad politics. We cannot accept this.” The Government in Delhi in the same week: plans to disinvest the Power Finance Corporation and National Mineral Development Corporation. And, if you believe his interviews, Mr Chidambaram has 6 more PSUs in mind.

So, no matter what the subject, the Left does the talking but the Government walks away with the decision. In fact, some stalwarts of the Left have admitted as much. “We’re protesting against their decisions but they’re not heeding our objections” said Jyoti Basu in January. “What else can we do?” AB Bardhan, a month later, was even clearer: “We write to them, we talk to them, we put pressure, we may bark at any length but nowadays they don’t understand all this and implement their own policies.”