Food and hunger are never far from the centre of politics in India. It would be too sceptical to suggest that the Congress leadership’s concern over the “food riots” in Bengal is not genuine. But the important thing about the party’s accusation against the Bengal government on this score is its political sub-text. By publicly taking Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s government to task, the Congress wants to send a political message to his party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Simply put, it is tit-for-tat politics. The CPI(M) has pushed Manmohan Singh and his government to a corner over the Indo-US nuclear deal. The Marxists’ opposition to the deal has also raised doubts about the survival of Mr Singh’s government. The statement by the Congress spokesperson, Abhishek Singhvi, about the crisis in Bengal’s rationing system clearly signals a change in the party’s attitude towards the CPI(M). And such shifts in the Congress’s political strategy do not happen without the approval of Sonia Gandhi. The Left’s support to the United Progressive Alliance government has helped Mr Bhattacharjee secure preferential treatment for many of Bengal’s new industrial projects. More important, the Congress’s central leadership has been careful not to cause political embarrassments to the chief minister. The party’s low-key campaigns on the police brutalities in Nandigram or the events in Singur were evidence of its political strategy in Bengal.
If a hostile Congress joins the Trinamul Congress to make matters difficult for Mr Bhattacharjee, he will have his own party to blame. This is not to question any political party’s right to criticize the nuclear deal or, for that matter, any other action of the Union government. But the CPI(M) has turned the deal into a political weapon to be used against the Congress. Bengal has known the economic costs of the Left’s political confrontations with the governments in New Delhi. The chief minister has sought to tread a different path. He had maintained good equations even with the previous National Democratic Alliance government in order to facilitate his agenda for Bengal’s economic development. His own party may now ruin his efforts. How much the Congress will gain in Bengal from this new political strategy is a matter of speculation. But there is no doubt that Bengal would turn out to be the worst loser in this game of political one-upmanship.