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Home > India > News > Columnists > T V R Shenoy

Congress has Left in debt trap

March 18, 2008

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What does it take to silence the Left Front? Finance Minister P Chidambaram has the answer -- Rs 60,000 crore.

The finance minister has created a debt trap with a difference. The debt will need to be paid off by a future government. But the trap has been set for the government's Left allies.

As I noted several weeks ago, the Congress's game plan calls for elections before prices -- especially food prices -- hit the roof, meaning late autumn or early winter this year. The excuse was to be the Indo-American nuclear deal, something that is anathema to the Communist Party of India-Marxist.

The deadline for the deal, as the Americans have helpfully made public, is May or June. They have also stated that a deal is a deal irrespective of whether the signatories in Delhi are a minority government.

The Left Front has gone out on a limb on the issue. It hates the United States, and it wants to grab Muslim votes. Let us not beat around the bush; there is a large chunk of Indian Muslim voters who hated George Bush [Images] so much that Narendra Modi's [Images] ratings went up after he was denied a diplomatic visa to the United States. Having made a bloody mess in Nandigram [Images] and Singur and reduced governance to a joke in Thiruvananthapuram, the Left Front needs to mobilise every vote.

Muslims constitute roughly a quarter -- if not more -- of the electorate both in Kerala [Images] and in West Bengal, and one that the Left Front dare not displease at this moment.

With both ideology and electoral considerations propelling it, the CPI-M has no choice but to withdraw support should the Manmohan Singh [Images] regime ink the deal. That, given the arithmetic of this Lok Sabha, will signal elections.

So what is the trap? The Congress is all set to announce that the Left Front has blocked the Rs. 60,000 crore debt relief package for farmers. It is, to put it starkly, a gigantic political gamble that enraged rural votes shall more than cancel out enraged Muslim votes.

The timing is all-important in this dance. The finance minister has put forth a date of June 30 for the implementation of the scheme. The Left Front is bound by its own vows to pull down the UPA government if the nuclear deal with the United States is signed even as late as June 29.

The Indo-American nuclear deal has, for all practical purposes, been cleared by the International Atomic Energy Agency during discussions over the past six months. It must now be approved by the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and then by the US Congress. Those steps are the responsibility of the Bush administration.

If all goes well, all the pieces shall fall into place for the Congress. The Left Front will be damned for blocking the debt relief package for farmers. And since the general election shall be timed to coincide with mandatory Vidhan Sabha polls in some Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled states, anti-incumbency is bound to give the Congress at least a few more seats. Sonia Gandhi [Images] and company will then be well placed to form the government in the life of the next Lok Sabha, with additional seats from Kerala, West Bengal, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh in their kitty.

I am not sure if the Congress has got its sums right. Any gains it makes in the states named above will definitely be offset by losses in large states such as Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, and Tamil Nadu, possibly a few smaller ones like Haryana and Delhi. (Which is why both K Karunanidhi and Lalu Prasad Yadav were publicly bad-mouthing all talk of a general election last week, while the Telangana Rashtra Samiti left the UPA altogether!)

But whether the BJP gains or loses, whether the Dravida Munnetra Kazgham and the Rashtriya Janata Dal concede seats or not, one thing is for sure -- the Left Front is bound to return with fewer seats in the next Lok Sabha.

There is a legend about a prisoner who was given his choice of punishment, either a hundred lashes or eating a hundred chillies. He opted for the latter, thinking it would be easier to bear. Part way through the ordeal he pleaded for the whip instead. When his back started bleeding he yelped that he preferred the burning in his mouth. This cycle was repeated until the poor man had endured both a hundred lashes and a hundred chillies.

The Left Front had a choice in September 2007, either to push for an immediate general election or to permit the United Progressive Alliance to complete its full term without making a fuss. In trying to be too clever by half the Left Front must now both swallow the chillies of humiliation at being outwitted and accept the lash of public anger in an election.


T V R Shenoy




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