The Congress enjoys a manoeuvring advantage over the left in perhaps a hundred areas; the one that really matters though is by now pretty obvious: when in a jam, the Congress can walk into the parlour of the Bharatiya Janata Party and seek its moral support as well as support in the form of votes in parliament. The left does not have that advantage; it will not touch the BJP even with a bargepole. Thus even if on class issues or an issue in foreign policy, the left is determined to defy the Congress, the latter is not really worried. Class issues are really economic issues, and here the Congress and the BJP have long had a convergence of views. In the early Nineties, when the Congress was implementing with gusto the first phase of the liberalization programme ' for instance, the progressive de-nationalization of the banking sector ' it lacked a majority in the Rajya Sabha. No matter, they were in it together, the BJP helped the Congress out by either voting with it all the way or walking out when, for this or that reason, it could not agree with a particular clause of the amending legislation.
The Congress was not without manners. It returned the compliment in the second half of the Nineties. The BJP was then in the seat of power and shepherding the second phase of liberalization, which included measures for meeting the government's commitments to the World Trade Organization. It was now Atal Bihari Vajpayee's government which lacked a majority in the Rajya Sabha to enable it to amend the 1970 Patent Act; the Congress quickly came to its rescue.
What is happening in the current parliament is therefore a continuum of the understanding developed in the Nineties. The left might think it is presiding over the proceedings and the Congress regime would collapse should it withdraw its support from it. This is self-deception. On all major economic and political issues, such as the extent of foreign participation in the equity of the telecommunications industry, the privatization of airports, voting on the Iran issue in the International Atomic Energy Agency and the nuclear agreement entered into with the United States of America, the left has had to bite the dust. The Congress did not deviate from its impassivity, and its stance on the nuclear deal would appear to have the tacit support of the BJP. The left would do its regulation barking, the Ramlila Grounds and the Patel Chowk would choke with protest rallies, the bite of the left would however be rendered ineffective by the BJP support for the government, forthcoming at the decisive moment.
The leaderships of both the Congress and the BJP are agreed that the global future rests with the hegemony led by the US, and that it would therefore pay in the long run to be on its right side. The naughty boys of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch are now safely dispersed, the BJP may make some seasonal noises concerning the nation's dignity and sovereignty. When the crunch comes, though, it is unlikely to stray much from the line laid down by Washington DC. Considering everything together, the left is therefore by now eminently dispensable to the Congress. The left, some might even say, has actively contributed to this denouement. It kept proclaiming to the world its resolve to keep the Congress along the straight and narrow path; it however also simultaneously informed the world that it would not do anything silly which could bring the BJP back to power. After such assurance what apprehension' Even if the left threatens to go to the extreme length so as to get amended particular provisions of the nuclear agreement with the US as well as the United Progressive Alliance government's stand on the Iran issue, the BJP, as a 'responsible' national party, would certainly bail out the Congress.
Not the Congress, it is the left which has tied itself up in knots. Once it is advertised that a barking dog never bites, and, even when it does, it does so with circumspection, the bluffing game is practically over. Particularly following the Bush visit, the left is in grave danger of losing its credibility, and this includes credibility to its own ranks. Heart-broken by what they regard as atrophy of thought and praxis in the leadership, a few amongst the left might recommend a course leading to anarchy, while a much greater number could withdraw into wounded disenchantment.
At the same time, elements do exist within the left who see certain advantages in allowing the status quo to continue. Some of them are running the administration in this or that state or hope to do so soon. For them, the ancient days of confronting New Delhi on ideological issues or on issues of Centre-state relations have slipped into oblivion. It is a vastly transformed landscape and the weight of advantage, they would argue, lies in an understanding with the Centre which would offer some stray bounties making it easier to run governments in the states. What they do not stop to ask is whether the Congress on its part is particularly keen to allow the left to continue to run smoothly the state administrations it currently presides over.
Perhaps it is a waiting game both the Congress and the left are playing. Elections to five state legislatures are around the corner. Their outcome would conceivably help both the Congress and the left make up their mind about how to deal with each other in the coming days. Should the left fare even marginally worse, and the Congress manage to hold on to what it now has, political equations at the Centre could change rapidly. There might be soul-searching within the left too; with few buyers any longer for the policy of being a part of power and yet not part of it, pressure could intensify for more overt radical opposition to the powers-that-be in New Delhi.
One real danger the left cannot ignore is the possibility of its stance of shout-against-the-Congress-but-not-cast-it-out adversely affecting its prospects in the ensuing elections in five states. Once the Americans take charge of the polity, some of the erstwhile supporters of the left could argue, the battle against religious fundamentalism too would be comprehensively lost; George W. Bush would be only too happy to mobilize the resources of the parivar against Islamic terrorists.
Should not the left, for sheer survival, make a move in the current budget session itself' At least this is what dissenters within the left would wish to happen. A desperate situation, in their view, calls for a desperate stratagem. To salvage its credibility, the left must consider bidding a temporary good-bye to the ideology of 'touchism' and decide to vote alongside the BJP on, for example, a cut-motion on budgetary grants on an issue it feels strongly about. The Congress would then have no alternative but to step down, even if purely temporarily. In the subsequent negotiations over the agenda of a new government, the left could have an opportunity to re-assert itself. Will it dare to dare, or has it convinced itself that it is already too late'