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The Left's elaborate charade
July 22, 2004
The finance minister of India is a coward. Or the Left Front must get ready to pull down the Manmohan Singh ministry. Of course, there is a third alternative -- the whole brouhaha over foreign direct investment is a farce contrived to fool the voters in Kerala. Personally, I lean to the last option.
The United Progressive Alliance ministry's first general Budget is a lacklustre document. Privatisation -- meaning, getting the Government of India out of areas it had no business entering in the first place -- is firmly on the backburner. P Chidambaram has promised to restructure, even to revive, sick enterprises rather than cut his losses. (Translation: several thousand crores of the taxpayers' money is going down the drain.) And the Union tourism minister has publicly promised to rethink selling off hotels.
Just about the only glimmer of rationality in the Union Budget came when the finance minister promised to raise foreign direct investment limits in the fields of insurance, civil aviation, and telecommunications. But this has led to much howling on the part of the Left Front partners who have asked the finance minister to roll back on his promise.
If they were serious the Left Front constituents would move a cut motion to the Budget (which would bring down the ministry if passed). Somewhat less drastically, they could merely abstain from voting (which would raise the spectre of the BJP and its allies pulling down the government). But the Communists are just pulling off an elaborate charade if they threaten to do neither.
The first indication that the Left Front and the Congress are engaged in a beautifully choreographed dance came on an obscure issue of politics rather than the public tiff over economic policy. This was Sonia Gandhi's decision to induct E Ahamed of the Muslim League as a minister. She didn't actually have much of a choice since he was the only candidate from the United Democratic Front -- the Congress-led coalition in Kerala -- to win a seat in the general election. But the Muslim League has been anathema to the Communists since 1987 when the legendary E M S Namboodiripad condemned it as a communal party (a term of abuse otherwise reserved for the BJP).
The Left Front representative dutifully made all the right noises about this new threat to the 'secular' order of things. (There was an element of hypocrisy in this; the Muslim League was also a member of the DMK-led front in Tamil Nadu in which the CPI-M and the CPI were partners.) The Congress simply refused to respond one way or the other. The matter has now been quietly shelved.
The second so-called 'confrontation' between the Left Front and the Congress came over the vexed issue of raising the price of petroleum products. If you ask me, the petroleum minister had little choice given the way that global prices were rising and the public apprehensions of the oil companies themselves over the losses they were incurring. Carefully ignoring reality, the Communists promptly wept crocodile tears over the threat to the housewife's budget because LPG prices had gone up. There was talk of taking the issue to the people and of putting pressure on the United Progressive Alliance to roll back the price increase. The ministers stood firm. After a day or two of much pouting before the cameras, the Left Front quietly gave the issue a quiet burial.
Given this history, I do not take the weeping and wailing of the good comrades on foreign direct investment very seriously. It is early days yet, but the finance minister hasn't even agreed to present the issue to a committee of experts (the time-honoured method of saving face and wasting time preferred by governments). I hope P Chidambaram continues to stand firm; it would send all the wrong signals to an already jittery market should he start wavering.
Curiously, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee ministry had considered raising the foreign direct investment level in telecommunications to 74 percent. It chose not to go ahead because of strenuous opposition from the Swadeshi Jagran Manch. It is fascinating to see that the Left Front apparently has much more in common with the detested Sangh Parivar than the Marxists thought.
The truth is that the Left Front is caught between the twin -- and occasionally contradictory -- compulsions of keeping the BJP out of power while simultaneously assuring its own voters that it hasn't lost its ideological edge. Let us not forget that elections to the Kerala assembly are due in just less than two years (or less if Antony and Karunakaran continue squabbling). And it is only because of Kerala that the Left Front won a record number of seats in the Lok Sabha. (The results from West Bengal weren't all that different from the last general election.)
Both goals are achievable. The price is a certain loss of credibility since there are only so many times that the Left Front can cry wolf and still be taken seriously. To paraphrase a certain founding father of Communism, 'Leftists of India unite, you have nothing to lose but your ideology!'
T V R Shenoy