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The Kamikaze Approach

The nuclear deal is in India’s best interests while Karat’s visceral hatred of America belongs to another age, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Jun 28, 2008 23:57 IST

A popular middle class pre-occupation is to berate politicians for being so interested in winning elections that they are willing to compromise on nearly every issue. Why, I have often heard it said, can’t we have leaders who don’t give a damn about electoral politics but only do what they think is right?

Well, guys, welcome to today’s India. You’ve got your wish. <b1>

The current political crisis is almost entirely a consequence of the actions of politicians who don’t care about winning elections, do not bother with a mass base, have no interest in compromise and are doing what they think is right for the country.

One of them, of course, is Manmohan Singh. When he says, as he often does these days, “What is the point remaining in office if we cannot do the things that need to be done?”, we admire that sentiment and applaud his moral integrity.

But the other is Prakash Karat. When he refuses to deviate at all from what he considers right, and is ready to plunge the country into an early election, which will almost certainly damage his own party, the middle class is less admiring. He’s a stubborn fool, we say, a prisoner of his own obsolete ideological conditioning.

It’s no secret that, for me, the difference between the two is that Manmohan Singh is right while Prakash Karat is wrong. The nuclear deal is in India’s best interests while Karat’s visceral hatred of America belongs to another age.

But just because I agree with one of the two men at the centre of this confrontation, and am bewildered by the obstinacy of the other, it does not follow that their approaches — to this issue, at least — are very different.

Neither is a politician in the usual sense of the term. Manmohan Singh has called himself an ‘accidental politician’; others would call him a technocrat. Like Dr Singh, Karat has never been interested in mass politics. Nor has he been burdened by the need to win Lok Sabha elections. He didn’t join politics for power. He joined out of ideological commitment. So, he doesn’t care if his party loses some of its power. Similarly, Dr Singh joined politics to save India at a time when we were bankrupt. He performed that job spectacularly well, setting us on the road to superpower status.

Neither man has any interest in power unless it is on his own terms and in accordance with his principles.

That’s why this government is teetering on the edge. And that’s why LK Advani may well be our next Prime Minister.

Though we in the middle class would never have thought it possible, today’s reality is that these two men — both non-politicians in the electoral sense — have the support of the decision-makers in their parties. The CPM is dismayed by the prospect of polls because it knows it will lose seats in Bengal and Kerala. But its Politburo and its top bodies have backed Karat nevertheless. The Congress knows that if this confrontation leads to an autumn election — which it might well — the UPA will be driven out of power. But despite that, the Working Committee and the party president are backing Manmohan Singh.

So, shouldn’t we be happy?

As members of the educated, middle class, tired of the compromises of the political class, we should be celebrating our victory. We’ve got what we wanted: the politics of principle even at the cost of electoral defeat.

Except, of course, that none of us is that thrilled.

Not only do we refuse to see Karat’s stand as being based on principle, we are also curiously unmoved by the deal itself. Yes, it’s probably a good thing, we say vaguely. In the 21st century, we need to be aligned with America. We’ll get a little more energy. But beyond that, there’s very little excitement.

The truth is that opposing an alliance with America has some emotional resonance with Communists. But aligning with George Bush does not exactly get Congress voters to stand up and cheer. You could argue that this is because the deal has not been sold properly to the Indian public — and I think you would be right — but that’s entirely the government’s own fault.

There is much more support for the deal within the commentariat — people who write columns and comment pieces. But these commentators would not necessarily vote for the Congress even if the government fell on this issue. They would say what a wonderful chap Manmohan was and then cheerfully go off and vote for whoever they liked anyway.

The American lobby within the commentariat has a more complex agenda. If the government falls over the issue, it’s better for the deal. The BJP has already indicated that it will sign it after making a few minor face-saving changes. So even if the Congress can’t get it through, the next government will — without having to worry about the Left. For hardcore dealwallahs, this is a win-win game. Either Manmohan Singh gets it through by acting as a suicide bomber — even if his government is destroyed in the process — or the next crowd will sign it anyway. In the circumstances, it’s not difficult to see why sections of the commentariat are flattering the Prime Minister into taking the Kamikaze approach.

What happens next depends entirely on Manmohan Singh. Prakash Karat has cast himself as Dr No and it is too late to change that script. For all of this week, Manmohan’s minions have been scurrying around in search of a compromise formula. The one they pinned their hopes on — that the Left lets them go to the IAEA on the condition that they will not take the deal further without checking back with Karat — seems unlikely to fly.

With the Left unwilling to change its mind, the Congress’s best hope is to win the support of the Samajwadi Party. But this process is fraught with risk. Secret negotiations with the SP preceded this crisis but they had focused only on seat-sharing in UP. Even then, the Congress was ambivalent. A pact with the SP would give it more seats in UP at the general election. But the SP would gain many more. And then, with greater numbers in the next Lok Sabha, it could well ditch the Congress and tie up with the BJP or a Third Front. Now that the Congress needs the SP’s support in this Lok Sabha, it will have to make more concessions to Mulayam Singh. And given the SP’s record, there’s no guarantee the party will keep its word.

That leaves an election as the most likely outcome. But this is complicated. The Congress does not want an election before January by which time prices may settle down. (The old optimism about inflation ending by October has evaporated.)

The problem now is timing. The government wants to go to the IAEA by the first week of August. Once that happens, the Left will withdraw support. The BJP will ask for a Parliament session and vote the government out (unless the SP deal works out).

Once the UPA is a minority government, two things follow. One: its moral authority to push the nuclear deal through is severely eroded. Some countries may even use the government’s lack of legitimacy to stall the deal. Two: the government can no longer dictate the timing of the election. The Election Commission could set an October date or club the election with the Assembly polls that are due around then. That would be disastrous for the Congress.

This could be the worst of all outcomes: the government falls on an issue of principle and morality but then fails to push the nuclear deal through because the world regards it as now lacking in moral legitimacy. Plus, the Congress loses the election in October.

Moreover, by forcing a confrontation on the nuclear deal when its priorities should be to fight inflation and to try and stave off an economic crisis (which could be imminent if we are not careful), the government may look as though it has lost both its nerve and its sense of proportion. The Prime Minister may look like a man who runs in the face of adversity.

In this complicated situation, only two things are clear. Karat will stick to his principles. And the Congress will back Manmohan Singh, whatever he decides. That’s worth something — a victory of principles over expediency is rare in Indian politics.

Now, it’s all up to the Prime Minister. His priorities, his sense of what’s right for his party and his concern with his place in history — statesman or Kamikaze? — will determine the government’s next move.