Will Left's Ideological Rigidity be Another 'Historical Error'?

Notwithstanding the possibility of a lowering of tension between the Congress and the communists over the India-US civil nuclear deal, two things can be predicted with a reasonable degree of certainty.

One is that the Manmohan Singh government will not be able to hold out for its full five-year term ending in 2009. The Left's ideologically driven opposition to closer ties with the US means that a point of no return is being reached between it and the Congress although, for the present, the comrades have decided not to destabilize the government.  

However, the respective positions of the Congress and the commissars remain as wide as ever.

While the Left believes that acceptance of the government's proximity to the US will ring the death knell for its proletarian doctrine, built on decades of anti-American propaganda, the government is evidently of the view that it cannot allow the antiquated Cold War prejudices to determine its policies in the 21st century.

The confrontation might not have been so intense if two less determined individuals had been at the head of the government and of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), which has been leading the charge against the deal.

But both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and CPI-M general secretary Prakash Karat have seemingly staked their personal prestige on their next step on the deal. 

Since the government is unlikely to either scrap the deal or seriously endanger it, the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by the Congress - which is united on the deal - will probably accommodate the comrades till the government feels the time is ripe for an early election.

This may well be after the Gujarat polls later this year, especially if the Narendra Modi government in the state does not fare well, which is quite possible given the high level of dissent in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) against his arrogant style.

In the six months or so still remaining before opting for the polls, the government may go slow on the nuclear deal in accordance with the Left's insistence not to "operationalize" it. But no one in his senses can believe that the government will actually scrap the agreement after two years of intensive negotiations with the George W. Bush administration.

Besides, its positive features are slowly becoming apparent to all but the committed leftists known for their obsessive anti-Americanism and crass opportunists like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is clearly opposing the deal out of sheer petty-minded cussedness since it is aware of the huge boost the Congress will get from the ending of India's nuclear isolation dating back to the first Pokhran test in 1974.

On their part, the commissars may also realize that they are doing themselves a disservice by their vehement objections. The reason is the growing impression that their obduracy is actually helping China and Pakistan by keeping India crippled by the sanctions regime, which has been in force since 1974.

Taken together with the strident advocacy on behalf of Chinese companies investing in India carried out by the Left despite the reservations voiced by the government on security considerations, the opposition to the deal will revive memories of the earlier occasions when the communists were seen to be acting in favor of countries inimical to India but ideologically close to them. 

There were two such occasions that cast a shadow on the Left's nationalistic credentials. One was in 1942, when the communists sided with the British colonial rulers on the ground that the "anti-imperialist" World War II had turned into a "people's war" after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. They also called Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose a quisling for aligning with the Japanese.

In his autobiography, "A Traveller and the Road: The Journey of an Indian Communist", Mohit Sen described the decision as a "disastrous error".

Two decades later, the Left committed a more serious mistake in 1962 when a section within the undivided Communist Party of India (CPI) refused to blame China for invading India. To quote Sen again, many in the CPI-M, which broke away from the CPI in 1964, "believed that the Chinese Communists had done nothing wrong in attacking India". They thought that in the long run "the Chinese action would help advance the revolution by weakening the power of the ruling alliance".

The communists are well aware that because of these two episodes, they haven't quite been able to live down their reputation of being unpatriotic. The slogan of the Naxalites or Indian Maoists - 'China's chairman is our chairman' - has also been damaging to the communists of all varieties.

Not surprisingly, CPI-M politburo member Sitaram Yechury considered it worthwhile to tell the media that his party was neither pro-Pakistan nor pro-China. When a political party feels the need to assert that it isn't favoring those countries with which India has been engaged in wars, it is obviously on the defensive.

There is another difficulty the communists may face. It is the difference in perception between the CPI-M's West Bengal unit and the party's central leaders on the Left's attitude towards the Manmohan Singh government.

As is known, the West Bengal government is closer to the centre where market-oriented policies are considered unlike the party's central leaders who are said to be guided by ideology because of their lack of practical experience in governance. West Bengal, therefore, wouldn't like a breach between the Left and the Manmohan Singh government lest it should affect the state's development projects. 

The nonagenarian West Bengal Marxist patriarch Jyoti Basu had therefore insisted even before the CPI-M's Central Committee meeting that there wouldn't be any mid-term poll. Interestingly, a senior West Bengal minister, Subhas Chakravarty, who is known to be close to Basu, has openly criticized Karat for his hawkish outlook.

It will be wrong to believe, therefore, that there are no misgivings within the CPI-M about the standoff with the central government. The fear apparently is that the party's ideological rigidity may be leading it to commit mistakes of the kind it made in 1942 and 1962.

But the Left does not seem to have a way out of the dilemma because accepting India's closeness to the US will undermine all its theories about neo-imperialism.

(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at aganguli@mail.com)        


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