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Home > News > Columnists > T V R Shenoy

The Left's 'death of a 1,000 cuts'

August 21, 2007

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It is a pity that Rahul Dravid [Images] and Dr Manmohan Singh [Images] couldn't exchange places last week. The prime minister might have gone for the kill at the Oval, and the Indian captain might have left room for the Left to save face.

The difference, of course, is that a Test series is little more than a sporting encounter, but the face-off between Prakash Karat and Dr Manmohan Singh threatens utter paralysis in Delhi for at least the next two years.

It is a poor diplomat that pushes his opposite number into a corner, leaving him with no options other than war or surrender. But which of the two sides is more at fault today?

The Left is nobody's darling, least of all that of the media. The newspapers, the ones in Delhi at any rate, are all but stringing up the Marxist leaders, particularly Prakash Karat. Can we acknowledge that there is blame enough to be shared between all concerned?

The prime minister should have had no illusions about the Left Front's dislike for the United States, that is built into the very genes of the CPI-M, the CPI, and their partners. (The CPI-M has been getting most of the media attention but the fact remains that its smaller allies are taking an even more 'hard-line' position on the nuclear pact.) Given this situation, the prime minister had no business telling President Bush that he had the majority of Parliament behind him. Was he seriously expecting the BJP to bail him out?

Even with the support of the majority of the MPs -- and in this instance the prime minister clearly does not command their allegiance -- it is the duty of a prime minister to keep the Lok Sabha on his side.

That is not just his constitutional duty, it is common sense. But Dr Manmohan Singh has been functioning as the super-bureaucrat that he was rather than the politician that he is today.

Sixteen years ago, the then finance minister was able to implement the first stage of financial reforms because of the acquiescence of the BJP, then as now the principal Opposition party. (The Congress lacked a simple majority and the Left Front was opposed to liberalisation.) What Manmohan Singh never grasped was the hard work that his prime minister, P V Narasimha Rao, put in with the BJP leaders.

Can you imagine Manmohan Singh having the grace and the wit to appoint a BJP leader to lead an international delegation? But that is just what Rao did, when Kashmir became an issue at a conference in Geneva, making Atal Bihari Vajpayee the leader and Farooq Abdullah his deputy, with a Congressman only as the third-ranking leader.

Manmohan Singh's idea of dealing with the BJP, on the other hand, is to claim that back in 2004 some unnamed BJP leaders were performing a havan for his death; try getting any support for your policies after that!

The same lack of common courtesy was evident in Dr Singh's treatment of the Left. The crisis burst when the prime minister gave an interview -- to a Kolkata newspaper, no less! -- saying the Left Front was welcome to withdraw support to his ministry. This was the diplomatic blunder I spoke of earlier, a challenge the CPI-M could not ignore.

Dr Singh was probably correct in calculating that the Left Front would not bring down his government on a foreign policy issue. But he forgets that his government's term runs up to 2009, 20 crucial months which the electorate shall undoubtedly remember when the general election comes.

The prime minister dared the Left Front to cut off his government's head. Did he forget that the CPI-M has other options, including the political equivalent of the Chinese torture called 'Death of a Thousand Cuts?' The Left Front will block every measure of economic reform so dear to the prime minister's heart. Pension reforms? Labour reforms? FDI reforms? Forget about them, Mr Prime Minister!

As I said, there is blame aplenty to go around. The CPI-M has insulted Dr Singh for three years, employing its veto without hinder. His policies have been derailed, and he himself has been lampooned. That outburst against the Left Front may have been regrettable but it was at least understandable.

That said, the saddest part of the story is that there seems to be no way out of the paralysis threatening Delhi. The three major parties -- the Congress, the BJP, the CPI-M -- are notably reluctant to go to the hustings.

The Congress pipped the BJP as the single largest party in 2004 largely thanks to disenchanted urban voters and because the National Democratic Alliance fared poorly in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. But the municipal polls held in Mumbai and Delhi earlier this year led to a hiding for the Congress. And in the 2006 assembly polls, Jayalalithaa ensured that the DMK would be denied even a simple majority. (Please remember that in 2004, the AIADMK-BJP combine failed to win a single Lok Sabha seat from Tamil Nadu.)

The BJP got a gigantic slap in the face in the Uttar Pradesh Vidhan Sabha polls. With the party in doldrums in the largest state, with dissent in Gujarat, and with the alliance with the Shiv Sena in question in Maharashtra, the BJP is in no shape to face polls today.

How about the Left Front? The open quarrels between Kerala [Images] Chief Minister V S Achuthanandan and local party boss Pinarayi Vijayan proved so embarrassing that the CPI-M was forced to kick them both out of the Politburo. As for West Bengal, I still consider Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee to be one of India's best chief ministers but Nandigram has opened wounds that refuse to heal.

Let us admit that August 2007 has not been the ideal way to celebrate India's Diamond Jubilee. What does it say of our democracy that our principal politicians are notably reluctant to face the electorate, or that our prime minister seems bent on saddling India with a treaty built on a foundation of false assurances (to the Americans) and lack of support (in Parliament)?

The prime minister has had his fun. The Left Front will now take its revenge.

Tailpiece: I have deliberately avoided taking a stance on the merits of the proposed nuclear agreement. The atmosphere is so vitiated that anything that anyone says will be taken as a partisan statement. And truth be told even scientists and diplomats seem split down the line on the deal. There is an unwritten rule -- honoured since the days of Dr Rajendra Prasad and Dr Radhakrishnan -- that former Presidents stay above controversy.

Perhaps it could be waived this once, and Professor Kalam could come out with a statement on the issue. Is there anyone else with his standing, respected both by the security establishment and the public at large?

T V R Shenoy