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November 23, 2005
Gold is the most malleable of metals. The purer the gold, the easier it is to handle. So, when I heard CPI-M General Secretary Prakash Karat thunder in Thiruvananthapuram that the Manmohan Singh government 'must make its stand on Iran clear before the International Atomic Energy Agency meets in Vienna on the 24th' I couldn't help putting the name and the date together.
In other words, this is a '24-Karat threat' that shouldn't cause either the Congress president or the prime minister to lose any sleep!
It is just plain stupid to issue a threat when you have no intention of backing it up with action. Karat is welcome to holler his lungs out that he, along with his Samajwadi Party and Janata Dal (Secular) allies, commands 110 votes in the Lok Sabha.
Will even one of those 110 dare to vote against the United Progressive Alliance ministry in the House? And that too on an issue so far removed from the concerns of the average Indian as Iranian nuclear proliferation! Who do the Marxists think they can fool with this utter rubbish?
Once upon a time, the CPI-M actually had a positive agenda, even if it meant little more than slavish translations of Soviet policies into Bengali and Malayalam. Fifteen years after the Communist dictatorship in Russia collapsed under the weight of history and economics, the Marxists have nothing to offer but a bunch of tattered slogans.
Do they have the guts to oppose economic reform? Then, look to West Bengal, where the CPI-M chief minister is now trying to protect the infotech industry from the wildcat strikes that are the heart and soul of the Communist workers' paradise. (I shall not even bother to expound on the Chinese experience!)
No, the only thing left in Comrade Karat's tattered bag of tricks is pure negativism. And what does this so-called 'policy' consist of?
In domestic affairs, oppose the "communal forces" (translation: the Bharatiya Janata Party). In foreign policy, oppose the "imperial forces" (translation: the United States). Sonia Gandhi will undoubtedly gamble that the first sentiment is so strong that she can crush the second beneath layers of silence.
That, after all, is precisely what she did a fortnight ago, when Natwar Singh raised the bogeyman of the 'foreign hand' to wriggle out of the Volcker Committee Report's findings. The Left Front leapt at the bait, and urged the Congress to reject the teport as an "imperial conspiracy". That, happily, did not happen, but Natwar Singh did succeed in planting a time bomb before he was eased out.
The external affairs minister declared publicly that he would advise the Government of India to vote against any American motion to condemn Iran for nuclear proliferation. This spectacular outburst flew in the face of Indian policy, and it probably did more than even the Volcker Committee Report itself to convince Sonia Gandhi that Natwar Singh had to go. By then, however, the Comrades sitting in Delhi's AKG Bhawan had fallen for it.
The sequel was an astounding echo of one of the biggest errors made by the Congress. In 1919 the victorious Allies had begun to dismantle the rickety Ottoman Empire. Some Muslim leaders in India opposed this on the ground that the Sultan of Turkey was also the Caliph of Islam, and that threatening his rule was tantamount to an attack on Islam.
This was the genesis of the famous Khilafat Movement (from the word 'Caliph'). Mahatma Gandhi decided to support it with all his heart and vim, probably thinking it was a fine way to weld Hindu-Muslim unity. It turned out to be a spectacular own goal, convincing Muslims across India that they were actually part of a larger community outside India.
Ultimately, the Khilafat Agitation fizzled out when the Turks themselves decided to abolish both the secular Sultanate and the spiritual Caliphate, ordering the last monarch to ship himself off Turkish soil. All that remained was the sense, among Indian Muslims anyway, that their spiritual home could not be India.
So, how does this tie up with what is going on today? Well, soon after Natwar Singh's outburst on Iran, the Left Front and the Samajwadi Party held a public rally in Lucknow. Speaking before an audience where members of the Muslim Ulema sat in places of honour, they demanded that the Manmohan Singh ministry twist its policy around, and vote against the American motion. They did more. Going farther than Natwar Singh dared, they specifically linked it to the Muslim community in India, declaring that India could do no less because of its historical links with Iran. Once again, Indian Muslims are being wooed by Indian politicians and a foreign country has been made a central figure in the debate.
The Congress will find itself in a difficult spot. It cannot reverse its vote in the International Atomic Energy Agency without losing credibility. But nor can it afford to let the Left Front and the Samajwadi Party pose as the guardians of 'Muslim rights'. The party must now seek another weapon in the war of competitive populism.
And one lies at hand, with Union HRD Minister Arjun Singh pondering over the call to reserve seats for Muslim students in the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management. The fact that the Allahabad high court struck down his move to make Aligarh Muslim University a 'minority institution', or that the Andhra Pradesh high court has twice rejected another harebrained scheme courtesy Chief Minister Rajasekhara Reddy, need not deter the Congress!
Comrade Karat's implied threat to pull down the United Progressive Alliance ministry is bunk. But the move to unite Muslim votes behind the Left Front and the Samajwadi Party clearly worries the Congress. I pray that I am wrong, but I fear that India shall pay a heavy price for this 24-Karat nonsense!
T V R Shenoy