The diaries of the former Soviet official, I.A. Benediktov, deposited in the archives of the Cold War International Project of the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington DC, offer some interesting insights into the mentality of Indian communists. Benediktov, who served as Moscow's ambassador to India in the early Sixties, documented his meeting with E.M.S. Namboodiripad in October 1962, after Pravda temporarily reversed its scepticism of Beijing's stand in the Sino-Indian border dispute because it feared that the Cuban missile crisis would trigger a global conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States of America.
'We ask that you transmit this to the C(entral) C(ommittee) CPSU,' Namboodiripad told the Soviet ambassador, 'that the publication of this article and the advice of the CPSU contained in this letter of the CC CPSU, truly will help our party get out of the extremely difficult position it is now in. Before this there were moments when we felt ourselves to be simply helpless, but now the party will be able to remedy this situation. We are grateful to the CC CPSU for this help; you can transmit this personally from me and from Comrade B(hupesh) Gupta.'
Namboodiripad then went on to argue that 'the most typical mistake of many Communists...is that they cannot clearly distinguish (between) patriotism and bourgeois nationalism'. In other words, this great Marxist theoretician, who is lauded by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and who serves as the inspiration to its present leadership, was categorical that in the event of a clash between Indian nationalism and the foreign policy objectives of a so-called socialist state, Indian communists must necessarily bat for the latter.
S.A. Dange was, perhaps, a notable exception, who more or less bamboozled the Communist Party of India in 1962 into taking, what Mohit Sen in his autobiography, A Traveller and the Road, described as 'a stand in support of the nation'. Yet, as Sen noted, neither Dange 'nor anybody else went beyond categorising the Chinese attack as a mistake and an aberration. The deeper implications'for Communist ideology, theory and practice were never raised...Not the CPI alone but the whole Communist movement would have to pay a heavy price for evading troublesome questions'.
The chickens, it would seem, are now coming home to roost. In 1998, the two communist parties went apoplectic when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government transformed India into a nuclear power. Their response was largely guided by Beijing's sharp opposition to India entering the exclusive five-member nuclear club, although for the sake of respectability they used the language of the American and Scandinavian non-proliferation zealots.
Whereas the Indian communists had earlier welcomed the 'worker's bomb' of the Soviet Union and China, their unrelenting opposition to 'bourgeois nationalism' prevented them from extending such a courtesy to India. Communist 'patriotism', with a Hindu tinge, naturally involved abjuring Indian nationalism in favour of a make-believe socialist internationalism.
Today, the Indian communists have resumed their battle against the old nationalist enemy. This time, however, they have chosen a more intriguing issue. Last week, the CPI and CPI(M) joined hands with the Samajwadi Party and the Muslim clergy to attack the Manmohan Singh government's alleged capitulation to the US on the Iran question. Declaring that foreign policy could not be conducted behind closed doors, the left has demanded that the government either make amends for siding with the US at the previous International Atomic Energy Authority meeting, or face the consequences of a full-scale revolt by some 100 members of parliament who were hitherto supporting the United Progressive Alliance government. If India votes with the US at the next IAEA meeting on November 24, the CPI leader, A.B. Bardhan, has said menacingly, 'They will have to repent it.'
The left's position is puzzling in two ways. First, the communists have glossed over the apparent inconsistencies in opposing India's own nuclear ambitions and endorsing Tehran's clear bid to channel a part of its nuclear programme into the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction. The Islamic republic already has an intermediate-range ballistic missile, anti-ship missiles to call the shots in the crucial Gulf of Hormuz and it is also developing an intercontinental ballistic missile that could have a range of 6,000 miles. According to the Washington Post, a US National Intelligence Estimate report earlier this year indicated that the weaponization process could take another 10 years of surreptitious activity.
Second, Iran has absolutely no socialist pretensions; it is unabashedly Islamist in orientation. There may be theological differences between the Shia mullahs, who constitute the last word in Iran's national affairs, and the Wahabi-inspired Islamist resurgence in the larger Muslim world, but the contradictions are submerged in the wider battle against the 'Great Satan' and its local ally, Israel. The Iranian president, M. Ahmadinejad's threat to obliterate Israel from the map of the world wasn't a casual indiscretion. It was in line with his inaugural address boast that 'a new Islamic revolution has arisen and the Islamic revolution'will, if God wills, cut off the roots of injustice in the world. The wave of the Islamic revolution will soon reach the entire world'.
Ahmadinejad may well be guilty of a polemical exaggeration that comes with inexperience. Time and a show of understanding, many well-meaning votaries of appeasement contend, will almost certainly blunt his revolutionary impetuosity. But, can hope be a basis for international indulgence' Ahmadinejad has, after all, warned that 'a country that is ready for martyrdom can do anything'.
For India, the issue is neither academic nor just an extension of the emerging special relationship with the US. Iran's nuclear programme has been shown to have an 'unofficial' Pakistani link, courtesy the ubiquitous A.Q. Khan. China too has its finger in the Iranian nuclear pile. Therefore, while the US certainly has reason to be concerned about the implications for the safety and security of Israel and equations in west Asia, India has to confront an additional issue. In plain language, can India afford the presence of two contiguous Islamic nuclear powers on its western borders'
Coupled with an assertive China in the east, a nuclear Iran will become a security nightmare for India. Apart from being a major psychological boost to Islamist radicalism, Iran's nuclear might will enhance India's strategic vulnerability and increase its dependence on the US. In such a situation, a strategic alliance between India and the US, far from being a boost to India's regional clout, will become a defensive necessity. The alternative would either be a seriously weakened India or an India forced into an unequal strategic relationship with China.
Since it is not the apparent intention of the communists to nurture Indo-US friendship, its motives in making the Iranian question a prestige issue are plainly suspect. Socialist countries created in the Stalinist mould have never had inhibitions in using local communist movements to further its foreign policy objectives. China is no exception.
It is not in Beijing's economic or strategic interests to have a democratic India playing a major role in Asia, either in conjunction with Washington or independently. Its opposition to India's entry into the P-5 nuclear club and its determination not to allow any other permanent Asian member into the security council are part of a larger design to both contain and encircle India. In this scheme, the Indian communists have an important role to play in muddying the waters domestically. This makes it obligatory for India's pre-eminent nationalist parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, to work discreetly in tandem to secure the country's future and prevent the blatant communalization and subversion of foreign policy.