The political turbulence resulting from the Left ultimatum to the United Progressive Alliance government on the proposed Indo-US nuclear agreement is propelling India towards yet another mid-term election. Yet, unlike mid-term elections in the past — as in 1971, 1980, 1991 and 1998 — this is an election that none of the major players actively seek or desire.
The Congress would have been happiest if a general election was held on schedule in 2009. This would have given the party the chance to first exploit the anti-incumbency feeling against the Bharatiya Janata Party in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. The gains from central and western India, the Congress believed, would offset potential losses in Andhra Pradesh and in Tamil Nadu.
The BJP, which was in a state of permanent election alert throughout the Nineties, is so disoriented at present that the thought of a general election petrifies its sitting Lok Sabha members of parliament. Unless the Congress shoots itself in the foot, the BJP tally looks set to fall significantly in states like Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. These losses may not be offset by possible gains in Bihar and Delhi. What is particularly galling for the BJP is that a snap election may find it, for the first time since 1984, bereft of a big issue. The sins of operating as a mindless opposition may come to haunt it in the coming months.
Ironically, the Left, which single-handedly triggered the present crisis on an issue that agitates only the strategic community and media, is not battle-ready. The comrades from West Bengal, despite their awesome record of organizing traffic jams against American imperialism, realized the pitfalls of killing a Central government that literally eats out of their hands and struck a note of caution in the politburo. They wanted the opposition to wider strategic ties with the United States of America confined to fiery rhetoric, not least because taking on the Congress in headlong battle meant facilitating an alliance of the Congress and Mamata Bannerjee.
The Kerala Communist Party of India (Marxist) was unrepresented — its two stalwarts, including the pugnacious chief minister, having been earlier expelled from the politburo as a disciplinary measure. But even the general secretary, Prakash Karat, could not have been unaware that the no-holds-barred civil war in the state CPI(M) and the chief minister’s radical whimsy have made the Left Democratic Front an object of derision in Kerala. The Left cannot hope to replicate the clean sweep of 2004 in its two strongholds. In short, far from opposition to the Indo-US nuclear deal being a step towards climbing greater heights, the Left is on the verge of squandering the disproportionate clout it exercised in the UPA government.
If there are no obvious beneficiaries from a mid-term poll this winter or in the summer of 2008, why has the Left taken such a precipitate step' Even assuming that the argument of the dissident scientists that India is in real danger of being defanged and sucked into the non-proliferation orbit is correct, why should the communists be opposed to the moves' It is a matter of record that the communists and their intellectual fellow-travellers were the most vociferous in opposing the Pokhran-II tests by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in May 1998. The seminar circuit of Delhi those days was marked by an astonishing bonhomie between leftist anti-nuke activists and representatives of US non-proliferation lobbies.
The absence of a rational motive based on a clearly-defined self-interest has prompted the conclusion that the Left opposition is guided by so-called ideological considerations. The simplistic argument is that the CPI(M) general secretary, Karat, is steeped in bookish Marxism and pays scant heed to the misgivings of those who have their moorings in electoral politics. Yet, for all his alleged dogmatism, Karat has also been in the forefront of attempts to modernize the communist movement and bring under its fold a larger community of Indian liberals. He has been supportive, for example, of attempts by Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee to secure West Bengal’s economic upgradation through the injection of foreign direct investment. In Kerala too he tried, although unsuccessfully, to edge the dogmatic V.S. Achuthanandan out of the electoral arena prior to the 2006 assembly election. True, these initiatives have been coupled by the CPI(M) putting the brakes on economic reforms at the Centre, but overall the perception that Karat is an unbending dogmatist living in a Stalinist cuckooland cannot be entirely sustained.
This naturally raises the question of “outside” intervention. Analogies are already being drawn to events in 1939, 1942, 1948 and 1962 when communists allowed outside pressure to override their identification with national interests. The extent to which China’s profound wariness of the growing proximity between India and the US played a role in persuading the CPI(M) to go for the kill is still a matter of conjecture. However, the proactive role of Beijing in bringing the Congress and CPI(M) closer in 1998 — after the nuclear tests — in common opposition to the Vajpayee government prompts the conclusion that China leverages its influence on domestic Indian politics for its strategic objectives. China may not be the ideological centre of the Left in the same way as the Soviet Union was in earlier decades. However, there is no doubt that it continues to exercise a phenomenal hold over the comrades. In the extreme reaction of the CPI(M), did the country witness China call in its amassed IOUs'
Nor is it merely an issue of China’s opposition. There are two other powers that have been alarmed by the growing proximity of India and the US. The first, predictably, is Pakistan, a country which has seen its global influence shrink dramatically on account of its flirtations with and encouragement of Islamist radicalism. The fear that an economically ascendant India will replace it as the US’s paramount partner in the region has been giving its establishment nightmares. Secondly, Iran, which is locked in a somewhat needless game of brinkmanship with the US — a development that does not really suit India — is wary. More so after India’s vote against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency last year. Intelligence reports suggested that resources originating in Iran played a big role in the Muslim mobilization against President Bush’s visit to India in early 2006.
The array of forces ranged against the Indo-US nuclear negotiations will have a direct bearing on the nature of the mid-term poll campaign. If the UPA government is either brought down or dissolves itself out of exasperation, the Left will have no option but to invoke the threat of US imperialism as an election issue. As things stand today, the only organized section sufficiently agitated by this foreign policy issue are the Muslims. Whether the Left Front has factored this in its calculations — both Kerala and West Bengal have sizeable Muslim votes — is not known. But willy-nilly, the Left will have to bank on Muslim votes to play out its anti-Americanism. It will also have to bank on parties with pre-existing Muslim support, like the Samajwadi Party, to be in the reckoning elsewhere.
Such a development will naturally cause great uneasiness in the Congress. Regardless of its secular credentials, the Congress has never been averse to playing any card that is expedient. In 1984, its deft use of Hindu sentiments by invoking the unity of India left the BJP horribly outmanoeuvred. If the Left and the Third Front target Muslim voters specially, will electoral pragmatism propel the Congress to adopt themes that resonate among Hindu voters' Having unwisely tailed the Left for opportunistic reasons, will the BJP be left high and dry'