Relations between the Congress-led coalition government and the left parties are passing through a trying and difficult phase. For now, there seems little imminent danger to the stability or the longevity of the Manmohan Singh ministry. No less than Prakash Karat of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) rules out a withdrawal of support for the coalition. The stark contrast is clearest in the two inter-related fields of foreign policy and economic reform. The roots of the divergence lie in the past. The Congress has never run a coalition at the Centre. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which ran such a government for six long years, was often torn between ideological impulses rooted in its Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh heritage and the demands of governing a loose alliance. The Congress's case is slightly more complex: it needs left support at an intellectual and cultural level to ward off a BJP still raring to go at the United Progressive Alliance.
Yet the contrasts with the Congress's past could not be more stark. It is this transformation that strains ties with the left. From around the early Nineties, under P.V. Narasimha Rao, the Congress embarked on closer engagement with the United States of America, a process that has been continued by the present government. The vote against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency last year and the impending vote to refer Iran to the United Nations Security Council are only indices of the shift in the Indian stance.
The left may be committed to unremitting hostility to the US, but this has not always been shared by Congress regimes in the past. Jawaharlal Nehru sought American air cover during the Chinese aggression against India in October 1962. Indira Gandhi's second spell in office was marked by a thaw in Indo-US relations, helped in no small measure by her excellent personal rapport with Ronald Reagan.
The foundations laid by her were built on by her son and successor. Rajiv Gandhi won encomia from the White House for India's intervention in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, a small measure of how far things had changed since 1971. Things changed decisively with the collapse of the USSR, and the attractiveness of the Indian economy as the Nineties wore on.
There was sufficient indication of Indian sensitivity to American concerns during the prime minister's visit to Washington D.C. in July 2005. In a public interview in the US, Singh admitted that there were serious doubts about the viability of the Iran gas-pipeline project. This was at a time when his Union petroleum minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar, was leaving no stone unturned to make the project a reality.
His replacement in the form of Murli Deora sends a clear signal. It should set at rest any lingering doubts about the thrust of government policy. If Aiyar was a strong-willed Nehruvian, Deora is an unrivalled fund-raiser with deep connections with the world of commerce and industry. Several biographies of the late Dhirubhai Ambani, the man from Chorwad in Gujarat who built India's business empire, refer to how Deora and Dhirubhai started out as yarn-traders from Bombay. Nor are Murli Deora's knowledge and contacts in official Washington to be cavilled at.
So, Congress has picked an old confidante of the late Indira Gandhi to head a vital ministry. Not since Sitaram Kesri or Lalit Narain Mishra has someone with this background held such a vital portfolio. Under Indira, Murli Deora held a very key party-post but never served in government. He was hand-picked by her two decades ago to head the Mumbai Pradesh Congress committee.
The signal such an appointment sends to the left must be read in conjunction with another ministerial change in the not-so-distant past, namely the exit of K. Natwar Singh from the ministry of external affairs. There the similarities end. Natwar became a political embarrassment; Aiyar was a dynamic minister carrying out a complex programme.
In the normal course of events, a ministerial reshuffle would not hold great significance except in a party-political sense. But given the nature of the UPA-left relations, which are predicated on a post poll arrangement, they do indicate the shape of things to come. The Congress's assertiveness comes in part from a pragmatic past, where it has executed U-turns in public policy without batting an eyelid.
The more immediate confrontation is not on the matter of airport privatization. It seems to have escaped the notice of most observers that both the consortiums that have won the bids include relatively new players from the same state: Andhra Pradesh. Both GMR and GVK represent Telugu capital, one from a Komati (trading community) and the other a Reddy (a cultivating community now expanding its presence in business). The fact that the Anil Ambani-led Reliance group, who lost the bids, has protested to little effect shows a government determined to have its way. The matter may yet land up in court.
What is important is that the government went ahead and is in the midst of a major confrontation with airport employee unions. Sitaram Yechury's comment in the early days of the UPA that the left could bite and not just bark will soon be put to the test. In the case of divestment in BHEL, a Navaratna public-sector company, the government had backed off. It seems a lot more determined this time.
The problem has implications well beyond immediate economic issues. The process of reform is bound to be complex and difficult with no road-map on how and where to go next available from the textbooks. The past has seen significant initiatives mostly from single-party governments. In the case of the Congress, with its highly centralized machine, the party fell in step with Indira when she expanded the scope of the government in the economy ' Rajiv when he launched his technology missions and Rao when he shrank the role of the state sector in the economy. The last led to serious turbulence, as Congress managers doubted the party would remain electable (and they were right on that score).
What may explain the more assertive stance of the party today may well have to do with the fact that it not only has a Gandhi family member at the helm but for the first time in two decades, it has another in the form of an heir apparent waiting in the wings. Nobody should have any doubts about the salience of the Congress-left relationship. But its limits are becoming clearer by the day. The left is closely committed to what were once the positions of the Congress, but even as the latter repeats the same slogans in a changing world, the actual content of policy has often changed beyond recognition. On an issue like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Congress eventually gave way.
It is a matter of concern, and ought to be for both the Congress and the left, that 175 districts in the country, no less, face significant left-wing insurgency. Unless the energies of the youth engaged in such protest, nihilistic and violent as it often is, can be channelled to protrusive ends, the entire din over reform will have served little purpose.
The gains of growth are still too unevenly spread across whole regions and sections of the people. Largely unnoticed by the media, the price of atta (wheat flour) has crossed Rs 14 a kilogram, even as stocks are at their lowest in several years. The government has just announced the import of 500,000 tonnes of wheat, with a waiver of import duties. The rise in prices hits the urban poor, while the import will anger farmers who get a lot less as minimum support price. Unrest of farmers or poor consumers may well lurk in the near future. For now, the test will be the handling of serious labour unrest. Whatever happens next, this is a turning point in the left-Congress relationship.