The nuclear deal was the perfect opportunity for the Marxists to walk out of the Bengal trap, precisely because it was an ideological issue. The Manmohan Singh government wants to bind India into a strategic relationship with the United States, specifically targeted against Iran (in writing) for starters but developing into a larger axis of the kind that America once had with Pakistan through the Baghdad Pact.
One of the oldest laws of politics is back at work: when a government is not in control of events, events take control of a government. Delhi, obsessed with itself, believes that events only take place in Delhi. Government is in a tight geographical ring; voters live outside this pseudo-magical circle.
If you want to understand what the Left is doing, you have to hop across from Delhi to Kolkata. The Marxist machinery has been cranked back into gear. You can hear the occasional squeal of age, of course. And the design is not pretty. But it still works. This week saw the surest sign that the Marxists are getting ready for a general election. I don’t mean the posters and the processions, evocative as they are. The CPI(M) brought out its genuine heavyweight and put him into political play. When Jyoti Basu speaks Bengal listens. It would not be inaccurate to suggest that Mr Basu’s influence extends over much larger space than the Marxist vote bank or the Bengali world: the Indian poor know he is on their side even if they do not have his party’s candidate in their constituency.
Mr Basu made two statements, connected by an unseen cord. He remarked that "anything" could happen if the Manmohan Singh government went ahead with the 123 Agreement. It does not require a philologist or a scientist to decipher the meaning of "anything". His second public statement was in response to Mamata Banerjee’s rather facile explanation that she was in the previous BJP-led alliance only because of her personal respect and admiration of former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. Mr Basu thought that he had never heard, in his 67 years of public life, anything more ridiculous. Mr Basu rarely makes a point unless he has a point to make. If that is the best reason that Mamata Banerjee is going to offer for being an ally of the BJP, it is not going to wash. She would have been far more credible if she had been a little more honest. She could have argued that defeating the Left was the most important part of her political agenda, and she chose to align with the BJP precisely because she thought this alliance could take on the Left. After all, if she thought the Congress was good enough, she would never have left the Congress, would she? But some politicians continue to believe that the simple truth is injurious to their health. They must be firmly convinced that the voter is a fool.
A primary reason for the split between the Congress and the Left is the secret understanding between the Congress and Mamata Banerjee’s party that they would contest the next elections in harmony even if they could not manage a complete alliance. The alliance was not formalised because the Congress needed the Left’s support in Delhi to survive. But workers of the two parties had begun to cooperate on the ground, the parties were together in the Singur and Nandigram movement, and when Mamata Banerjee decided to go on her famous hunger strike Congress ministers made every gesture of sympathy and support.
The announcement would have been made just before the elections were due, after the Congress had made full use of the Left’s support in Parliament, and in the process neutralised the Left’s ability to criticise it on the hustings. How do you attack, in an election campaign, someone you have defended during five years in power? The Left was in a trap, a clever one set by the Congress, and unable to wriggle out of it. Moreover, some Left MPs had succumbed to the obvious temptations of being associates of a ruling alliance; the beneficiaries were loath to end this relationship prematurely. But realpolitik had to supersede the preferences of individuals. As the Left moves towards departure mode, Mamata Banerjee turns up in arrival lounge. This is not the only trap that the Congress has set for partners that it does not consider reliable enough for a long-term alliance. When the escalating price of food becomes a subject of steamy exchanges during the coming election campaign, will the Congress blame Sharad Pawar, the agriculture minister? Priya Ranjan Das Munshi has already gone on record to suggest that the wheat purchases were mishandled because Mr Pawar is more interested in being president of the cricket board than in being agriculture minister.
The nuclear deal was the perfect opportunity for the Marxists to walk out of the Bengal trap, precisely because it was an ideological issue. The Manmohan Singh government wants to bind India into a strategic relationship with the United States, specifically targeted against Iran (in writing) for starters but developing into a larger axis of the kind that America once had with Pakistan through the Baghdad Pact. This was sweetened by much talk of nuclear energy on rather salty terms, intrusive, expensive and imbalanced. The Left could hardly have found a better reason to take a stand. Incidentally, those who are waiting for the Left to split on the nuclear deal do not understand Marxists.
We live, thank Heaven, in a free country, but freedom does not give anyone the freedom to dictate the pace of a vital national debate.
The most important point relates to common sense rather than special expertise: what is the hurry? Why cannot Parliament and the people be permitted time to discuss a matter that will set the course of investment and strategy for the next four or five decades? China took fifteen years over its negotiations with America; why can’t India be permitted a few months to examine the complex issues? Most people simply do not know the meaning of the strategic embrace that seeks to create a nexus of long-standing American allies, Japan, Australia and Singapore, with India. All these countries go to war when America goes to war, as they did in Iraq, even when majority public opinion is not in favour of self-defeating conflicts like Iraq. How many Indians are aware that there are four clauses in three sections of the Hyde Act which bind India to a "congruent" foreign policy with America on Iran, and that they express and impose an operational obligation on the US administration to bring India into full compliance? Link this with statements made by American officers that the current war games between the "allied" navies are designed to achieve operational compatibility in war. One has a right to ask whether this is preparation for a potential conflict with Iran, particularly when Pentagon sources are openly talking about an Iran plan in which the country’s nuclear and other assets will be flattened by three days of intense aerial bombing. The government has an obligation to discuss this.
Former Prime Minister V.P. Singh is still waiting for a response to his query on the price and value of the peaceful nuclear energy that has suddenly become the key to the future. I hope he is not condemned as a traitor — or even a Marxist! — for asking inconvenient questions. But such is the hurry of the Prime Minister that he even had a chat with Mr Amar Singh in the hope of getting the support of the Samajwadi Party. There is no danger to the government if it doesn’t rush through the deal: why would the Prime Minister want to risk his government when he can tell George Bush that he needs a stable majority in Parliament behind this deal before he can go through with it? Surely Dr Singh can crave for something without being craven?
India has begun to ask questions. A slogan is not an answer.