Politics being as much about perception as performance, there is often a price to be paid for miscalculations, both perceived and real. In Britain, the honeymoon of the prime minister, Gordon Brown, proved remarkably short-lived after he was seen to shamefacedly retreat from the Labour Party’s own hype about a snap poll. Apparently, Brown’s nerves failed him after the opposition leader, David Cameron, dramatically recovered lost ground in the opinion polls, thanks to a spirited speech to the Conservative Party conference in Bournemouth.
It may be stretching a point to find similarities between Brown’s retreat and the humiliation of the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, over the Indo-US nuclear agreement. You don’t have to be an admirer of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or its antediluvian anti-Americanism to be impressed by the dexterity and single-mindedness with which the party general secretary, Prakash Karat, derailed one of the boldest foreign policy initiatives in recent times and won a famous victory for China. In the old days of the Comintern, Karat would have been rewarded with the Order of Lenin and perhaps a private dacha in an exclusive Black Sea resort. In the post-Berlin Wall kaliyug, he has to be content with playing out the logic of bourgeois parliamentary politics with the ‘progressive’ sections of the Congress and the likes of Lalu Prasad and M. Karunanidhi.
For the prime minister and the Congress, the decision to put the nuclear deal on hold is a spectacular setback. Having made it an issue involving his personal prestige, Manmohan Singh is now vulnerable to taunts of being a cipher and the ‘weakest’ prime minister in living memory. The Congress, which decided to rally behind the nuclear deal after the July crisis erupted, showed a visible lack of nerve just as Karat’s finger was on the trigger. The surrender sent out a clear signal that the United Progressive Alliance was not sure of its ability to successfully face the electorate — this despite the encouraging results of the more credible opinion polls. Apart from having disappointed ‘Middle India’, which was all in favour of calling the Left’s bluff, the Congress has ended up providing a window of opportunity to a disoriented Bharatiya Janata Party.
In the coming months, and despite the boom in the stock markets, the UPA government is certain to be pilloried for encouraging drift and not being able to lift India to its true potential. With two difficult state assembly elections, in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, around the corner, the government may well enter 2008 perpetuating the impression that it is merely buying time before being confronted with the inevitable. If the BJP and the National Democratic Alliance manage to galvanize themselves, the Congress may well look back on the October surrender as the point from which its fortunes started to plummet southwards.
It is worth reflecting on the events of the past ten weeks to discover where the Congress went wrong, and why.
First, both the UPA government and the Congress tried to underplay the enormous importance of the nuclear agreement with the United States of America. Just as P.V. Narasimha Rao had attempted to obfuscate the importance of the economic shifts after the budget of 1991 by disingenuous allusions to the “highest stage” of the Nehruvian legacy — a piece of sophistry that left everyone bewildered — Manmohan Singh tried to pretend that the agreement with the US was something that involved strategic pundits and nuclear scientists.
The Left and its fellow-travellers began their political campaign against closer strategic ties with the US two years ago. The Congress chose to not respond politically till last month, when Sonia Gandhi delivered her speech in Jhajjar, Haryana. Even that was a half-hearted response, because the Congress spent the next few days trying to disabuse everyone of the impression that her tirade was directed at the Left. The Left was full-throated in its denunciation of the nuclear deal as capitulation to US imperialism; the Congress was always defensive about its responses because it imagined the Muslims would get offended.
The Congress tried to battle a no-holds-barred Left onslaught by pretending it was not there and with one hand tied behind its back. It failed to galvanize the country’s natural anti-communist constituency behind it, not least because it was fearful that such a move would result in Muslim alienation. Till a year ago, it didn’t even open lines of communication with the BJP. When it did, presumably at the prodding of the US, it was with a view to exacerbating factional rivalries within the party.
Indira Gandhi, had she been in a similar predicament, would have tried to offset possible loss of Muslim support by aggressively usurping the Hindu constituency of a rudderless BJP. She would have juxtaposed national interests against sectional blackmail. Sonia Gandhi, it is clear, lacked those instincts.
The surrender last week was a culmination of two years of over-dependence on politics by stealth. The Congress did not appreciate the fact that in a vibrant democracy, major political initiatives must be complemented by active political backing. Never mind convincing the country, the Congress didn’t even bother persuading the party faithful that the nuclear deal was in the national interest. It was only in late August that Kapil Sibal was entrusted with the responsibility of countering the common misconceptions about the 123 Agreement. Even this last minute response lacked consistency. In the last stages of the negotiations with the Left, there was even the unedifying spectacle of the prime minister and the external affairs minister pulling in different directions.
Secondly, the government misread the Left completely. Fed by intelligence reports of a schism between the “hardliners” and the West Bengal unit, the Congress imagined that Sitaram Yechuri, Jyoti Basu and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee would somehow or the other upstage Karat. It failed to appreciate that Karat was not another conspiratorial Harkishen Singh Surjeet and that as far as the Left is concerned, it is better to lose a few parliamentary seats (as would have been the case had a snap general election been called) than compromise on a fundamental article of faith. After Karat had the CPI(M)’s no-compromise stand endorsed at every level of the party’s decision-making apparatus, it was impossible for the “pragmatists” to cut secret deals with the government.
The Left victory in the nuclear battle is certain to have profound and long-term consequences. The Congress has made it sufficiently clear that it does not share the prime minister’s political priorities. The result is that Manmohan Singh has lost every iota of authority. More important, Sonia Gandhi appears to have repeatedly signalled that she is most comfortable with a welfare-based economic programme that makes her naturally at ease with the Left. The coming months may witness the Left increasing pressure on the government to adopt so-called pro-poor policies that actually increase the hurdles before Indian entrepreneurs. This could also mean that sniper attacks on ministers such as P. Chidambaram, Kamal Nath, Murli Deora and Kapil Sibal will increase.
In addition, the Left will seek to disentangle India from the web of strategic relations it has nego- tiated with the US and other Western countries in the past two years. With the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s Karunanidhi openly expressing his sympathy for Left posi- tions and Lalu Prasad fearful of early elections, Karat now has the nucleus to facilitate an ideological shift in the UPA. Manmohan Singh may or may not remain the prime minister in the new year, but it is almost certain that the dispensation at the Centre will, for all practical purposes, become the Left-led UPA government. We may be witnessing the last days of Incredible India.