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TWO STEPS BACK
- By dithering, the Congress has given its rivals a useful handle

The coalition government’s hesitation over India’s nuclear agreement with the United States of America has put off speculation about an imminent general election. No less than the chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance, Sonia Gandhi, has clarified that the government will focus on existing policies and work towards the deadline of May 2009, when general elections are due. The stand-off with the Left is not over, but it is the Congress and the UPA government that have blinked. There is little doubt that the impasse will have serious repercussions on India’s foreign policy. But while critics celebrate and supporters sulk, the implications for domestic politics and policy also deserve attention.

Ever since Jawaharlal Nehru, prime ministers have had an important role in shaping India’s foreign policy. This has been even more pronounced a feature in the era of minority governments and coalitions since 1989. Foreign affairs are often seen as relatively free of the constraints of domestic lobbies and interest groups. The division of views and ideologies seems to permeate the sphere of economic and social policy at home in a way that does not become immediately apparent with respect to external affairs.

Yet, the linkages are deep and inescapable. P.V. Narasimha Rao’s economic reforms found a logical concomitant in closer dialogue with the world’s only superpower after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s regime alternated between peace talks with Pakistan and a strident stance on cross-border terrorism. Both had serious implications within India. Similarly, the present alliance has sought to balance engagement with the US with overtures to other big powers. Nowhere is this as clearly evident as in Sonia Gandhi’s recent visit to South Africa and in her impending visit to China.

The reasons for these links were not perceived in a holistic manner by the government and ruling party over the last few months. It is instructive to note that the present prime minister is the first ever from his party never to have fought and won a Lok Sabha election. His expertise in economic management and the limitations of his political instinct spring from his unique background.

The party could and should have filled the gap. As for Sonia Gandhi, her association with policy began as long ago as 1984-89, when her husband was the prime minister. But even then, the speed with which India intervened in Sri Lanka in July 1987 and the tragic aftermath of that intervention should have served as warning. No major foreign policy initiative could be taken without a sober assessment of domestic constraints on policy.

For over two months it seemed such an assessment had been made and the Congress was all set to press ahead with its own course of action. If there were any doubts about the battle-readiness of the party, these were dispelled by the strong support for the agreement from its supreme leader, Sonia Gandhi. Echoing her late mother-in-law, she said in a rally in Jhajjar, Haryana, that those who opposed the agreement were enemies of progress. The stage was set for the Congress to do what it has hesitated to do ever since its defeat in the general elections of May 1996: take credit for reform and all the foreign policy changes that have run parallel to it.

The prime minister, Manmohan Singh, set the ball rolling in his now famous interview to The Telegraph. Not only did he dare the Left to withdraw support, he envisioned the deal with the US as the centrepiece of a larger world-view. Just as 1991 was a landmark in terms of economic policy, so would 2007 stand out in Indian foreign policy. His government would have facilitated, nay, enabled, the re-integration of India with the rest of the world community and the concomitant gains in terms of access to fuel and technologies.

The induction of Rahul Gandhi and his new team into the party hierarchy also confirmed that the party was moving into higher gear. The extension of the rural jobs programme to the whole country was directly associated with his intervention. By giving him direct charge of the student and youth fronts, Sonia Gandhi also signalled a change of guard in the future.

It began with a bang but ended with a whimper. When the Left stood its ground, the Congress’s calculus crumbled. The ruling party seriously underestimated the determination of the Left and the cohesiveness of not just the Communist Party of India (Marxist) but also the Left parties as a whole on the issue of the deal.

The party got isolated. First came a strong attack by the Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Mayavati. With 19 Lok Sabha members of parliament in tow and UP firmly under her rule for five years, she chose to signal her opposition. Finally, the coalition partners indicated that a go-slow on the deal was preferable to early elections. Allies like Sharad Pawar, Lalu Prasad and M. Karunanidhi, who had been supportive of the Congress, also switched sides.

With second thoughts, the Congress stepped back from the brink. But this casts a doubt on its ability to manage and lead a coalition. Even worse, it calls into question the ways in which the party will now package and sell itself as capable of strong leadership. It is easy to forget that it has a tradition of strong leaders ever since independence and even earlier. Such leaders do divide the country into rival camps, but they ally a party together. Its battle-readiness in elections hinges on a faith in its leadership being able to stick to a decision through thick and thin. Now the government will come under increasing pressure from interests and lobbies both within and outside.

This may not be a first. The UPA switched tracks on the affidavit on the Ramar Sethu. Last year, it seemed at odds about whether to go ahead with or fine-tune reservations for other backward classes in higher educational institutions. Its strong commitment to justice for the riot-affected has not been matched by action against the rioters of 1993 in India’s financial capital and business hub, Mumbai. On all these issues, it seems to hesitate, prevaricate and act too late in the day. In the process, it is in danger of losing out on all fronts.

The upshot of this is a weak and indecisive government. More seriously, the party at the heart of the coalition has lost its hold on the situation. The Left and most allies are veterans of coalition politics, while the Congress has been shown up as a greenhorn.

It is illuminating to recall how the two prime ministers of the coalition era who had a deep and lasting impact were men of few words. Rao kept a sphinx-like silence while Vajpayee often spoke in parables and proverbs. Their ability to act was enhanced by their prudence with words. The reverse seems to have happened with the Congress.

It needs to introspect seriously and ask how it will restore its credibility in the domestic sphere. With over a dozen state elections due before the Lok Sabha polls, there will now be little respite. Statecraft at all times is a balancing act, more so in times of rapid change. The fact is that the threads that kept the alliance in place are slowly coming undone.

By first raising the stakes and then backing off, the Congress leadership has added to the problems on its plate. The consequences will unfold over the rest of its term in office. But it has given its opponents a key campaign point. A party that rallies round the leader will now be hard put to firm up her credentials.

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