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Occasional tiffs, but Left won't withdraw support to UPA government
January 19, 2006
The Indian Left has historically had a problem with the Congress. The Communist Party of India split in 1964 largely on the question of alliances with the Congress. The rump CPI believed the Congress represented a potentially anti-imperialist, anti-monopolist national bourgeoisie, a characterisation the larger section which became the Communist Party of India-Marxist rejected. Despite the ideological rethinking after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc, some minor differences on the Congress remain between the CPI-M and CPI.
During the United Front government, 1996-1998, the CPI-M refused to join the government though its stalwart leader Jyoti Basu was offered the prime ministership. The CPI-M refused despite the plea of the CPI, because it did not want to serve in a government dependent on Congress support. Though Jyoti Basu termed this a 'historic blunder' and the CPI joined the United Front government, the large majority of the CPI-M persisted with this understanding.
The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance victory in 2004 gave the CPI-M another chance to be in government, this time reportedly under their deputy prime minister. They declined once again, and despite its own inclinations the CPI in the interests of Left unity also stayed out. Thus despite the Left's all-out opposition to the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance, it declined to accept office under a Congress-led UPA government.
A primary reason for this is economic. The Left, unlike the UPA coalition, does not accept neo-liberal economic reform. It is resolutely opposed to privatisation, liberalisation and the overall replacement of the State by the market in the Indian economy. The Left was also sceptical about foreign policy. It felt that a substantial section within the UPA favoured closer ties with the United States, which the Left historically believes to be the leader of an international imperialist alliance, as the sole superpower.
All these apprehensions of the Left were borne out in the UPA's one-and-a-half years in office. There were sharp clashes of the Left with the UPA on disinvestment, privatisation, labour rights and other areas of economic policy. Despite Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's efforts to cite Left reformers like West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya in his support, the Left was unrelenting in its opposition.
It first opposed disinvestment in the Navratna PSUs. It is now opposing disinvestment in all profitable Public Sector Units and has made alternative suggestions for resource mobilisation through withdrawal of corporate tax exemptions, levy of taxes on luxury goods, etc. Even in the modernisation of Mumbai and Delhi airports, the Left preferred that this be done by Public Sector Units. Similarly, the call by the prime minister for 'labour flexibility' was summarily rebuffed. Left trade unions made it clear that they would not accept any dilution in the right to agitate and organise in the name of labour flexibility.
Wary of resource constraints, the UPA government has avoided announcing the overdue 6th Pay Commission for government employees, as this would lead to a massive increase in official non-Plan expenditure through increased salaries because of salary hikes for central government employees. This has led to a complete solidarity of workers' organisations. All central trade unions including those of the Left, Congress and BJP have called for an indefinite strike from March 31. Since the railway workers unions are also joining this strike would put immense pressure on the UPA government. It is likely UPA leaders will have to respond to this threatened mobilisation, first with an offer of talks and later with the announcement of the 6th Pay Commission.
Foreign policy issues have led to the sharpest clash between the Congress and the Left. In the Indo-US Defence Framework agreement of June 28, 2005 the Indian government agreed to a joint missile defence with the US, agreed to participate in international humanitarian missions with the US without any reference to the United Nations. Since the US missile defence programme includes national missile defence and theatre missile defence programmes that are directed at countering the nuclear deterrents of Russia and China, the Left was enraged.
The breaking point came with the nuclear agreement signed on July 18 between President George W Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. India's offer to agree to US demands for India's nuclear energy programme including the separation of military and civilian nuclear facilities, International Atomic Energy Agency inspection of the latter including through the intrusive Additional Protocol, which the US itself has not signed, was seen as a surrender to US pressure. Even India's unilateral extension of its moratorium on nuclear testing, without any concomitant commitment by the US, raised eyebrows.
A lot of this would have been acceptable if this had been agreed between India and the IAEA. But two such far reaching agreements on such sensitive areas with the US within three weeks, without any public discussion, much less consultation with the Left, the latter found outrageous and against the national interest as it has traditionally seen it. This led to an unprecedented attack on Dr Singh by name by the Left led by the charismatic Prakash Karat, the CPI-M general secretary and himself an expert in international studies, for the UPA government's purported political subservience to the US. The Left led by the CPI-M organised seminars and meetings against these agreements throughout India, as a betrayal of the national interest.
The sharp disagreements between the Left and the UPA are highlighted by the former's decision to demonstrate against President Bush during his visit to India in March. The Left has threatened to demonstrate everywhere Bush goes and has also vowed to boycott the joint Parliament session which he addresses.
The passage of events ranging from economic policy to foreign policy show that the relationship between the Congress-led UPA and Left will continue to be occasionally fractious. But neither has any political alternative. Both have a resolute opponent in the NDA, whose spirits have lifted since its sweeping victory in Bihar. The Left has always considered the BJP a fascist force, and despite their contradictions with UPA policies, particularly in economic policies and foreign policy, they will do nothing which will seriously weaken the UPA which they consider a secular alliance to the benefit of an NDA led by the BJP.
Thus, the remaining period of the Congress-led UPA and the Left before the next general election will be marked by occasional tiffs and confrontations. In states where they will be rival claimants for power like West Bengal and Kerala, there will be sharp rhetorical clashes. But the Congress and Left know they have to work together, against their common and powerful enemy, the BJP-led NDA.
Professor Chinoy, an expert on comparative politics and political theory, teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University