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Is Left opposition to Bush visit just sound and fury?

February 23, 2006 22:06 IST

The Chinese and Russian agreement to refer the Iran nuclear issue to the United Nations Security Council has come as a respite to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He has got a breather from having to make a potentially explosive political decision of going along with Western countries on the issue.

The Left parties in India do not want the government to vote against Iran and have stepped up opposition to US global policies. With an unprecedented 60 seats out of 543 in Parliament, the resurgent Left is now more prominent than ever before. And, the United Progressive Alliance government depends on the Left for its survival.

Therefore, its opposition to President George Bush's forthcoming visit in the first week of March will not be a silent one.
"We are going to mobilise the Indian people's opinion against Bush. We will expose his claims to democratic initiatives because he himself is a danger to freedom and democracy. We want to use his visit to oppose the Indian government's foreign policy, which is a clear deviation from Common Minimum Programme agreed to by coalition partners," said Nilopat Basu, a senior leader of the Communist Party of India and a member of the Rajya Sabha.

Now, the UPA government is trying backdoor diplomacy with Left leaders to persuade them to allow President Bush to address a joint session of Parliament, just as former US President Bill Clinton did during his visit in 2000.

Murli Deora, Minister for Oil and Petroleum and an old campaigner for stronger Indo-US ties is trying to meet with Opposition leaders to get their approval. However, the Left is, at the moment, strongly against this proposal.

When India and the US are talking about democracy initiatives and Bush's gameplan revolves around restoration of democracy, if he were not able to visit the Parliament of the world's largest democracy, it would be ironic. However, even Dr Singh admitted in his national press conference that Bush's address to a joint session is not yet finalised.

The Left, meanwhile, does not seem to be letting up on its opposition. The Left parties are planning to gather huge crowds wherever Bush goes to protest against his visit. This is confirmed by Basu, who adds, "A guest who wants respect must introspect first."

An expert on China with a New Delhi-based thinktank says, "Left parties in India are used by China as pressure groups in Indian politics. But the Indian government will not be affected by them nor can they influence India 's current agenda with the US."

The Left is also aware, however, that the Indian middle class, the most vocal political group, is in favour of Indo-US relations and they will be the backbone of popular support to Bush.

Nonetheless, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) oraganised a convention in New Delhi in the last week of January to kick off nation-wide protests against US policies. Armed with huge posters, which read 'Killer Bush go back', they plan to hold street plays, distribute literature and screen films that show US atrocities in Iraqi jails.

The CPI(M) politburo issues more press releases against the US than it does on any other subject. In the latest one, they have strongly objected to the US asking the Indian government not to acquire an oilfield in Syria with Chinese collaboration. The Indian press has reported that the Bush administration has given an aide memoire to the Indian government, asking it to reconsider this decision.

The biggest irritants to the Left are, however, the US government's noises over the Indian stand on the Iran nuclear issue and the Indo-US nuclear deal.

The threat made by US Ambassador David Mulford that unless India voted against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency, the nuclear deal would not be approved by US Congress was a diplomatic blunder.

Mulford had warned, in an interview, that the fall-out of a vote against the US stand on Iran would be 'devastating' and the nuclear co-operation proposal would 'die' in Congress.

Even the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, an advocate of improved Indo-US relations, issued a strong statement against Mulford's remark.

The Left went a step further in asking for Mulford's recall, as 'it is unbecoming on any Ambassador's part to comment on the internal affairs of a sovereign country', as CPI-M politburo member Sitaram Yechury said. He added that Mulford's comments amounted to interfering in India's internal matters. CPI leader D Raja said Mulford had crossed all limits.

Prakash Karat, general secretary of CPI-M and probably the most influential Left leader, has written to Dr Singh several times, elaborating the Left's demands on the Iran nuclear issue.

They say that nothing will satisfy them but the following:

  • A clear policy of the Indian government to insist that the Iran issue be resolved peacefully and through negotiations within the IAEA framework.
  • India should make it clear to the international community that it acknowledges and respects Iran's rights and privileges under the NPT to enrich uranium.
  • India must stand for peace on the Iran issue and discourage the international community from resorting to blackmail or hreats. It must also avoid confrontation, which will have a ripple effect in the Middle East.
  • Dr Singh must build consensus on this issue and, in case of a vote, abstain.

China and Russia's agreement in London on January 31 to report Iran to the UNSC have dampened Indian Marxists who are, however, interpreting it differently. They believe this to be an exit route offered to the US and nothing more.

Despite the Left's repeated threats and missives over its foreign policy regarding the US, the Congress-led coalition government is not overly perturbed. The Congress' analysis is that, today, 'communalism of the BJP is a bigger threat than US imperialism, which is more of a global issue than domestic'. The Left has, however, repeatedly said that it is unlikely to destabilise the Singh government. 

"In Kerala and West Bengal, where the Left has major stakes, assembly elections are due soon. The Left is, therefore, opposing anything and everything the Congress does, including the Bush visit, to distance itself from them," a senior Congress leader and Congress Working Committee member told rediff.com.

He adds, "Indian politicians who oppose Indo-US deals are eyeing Muslim votes. The opposition to the US has got a domestic element to it. And in the case of Left parties, the added angle is that they have an ideological affinity to China. Obviously China's thoughts on the Iran issue or on US policies are always taken into account by the Indian Left."

While India is aware that Bush is facing opposition in his own country as well, there are some advantages that India has gained from his government. As Commodore C Uday Bhaskar of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses says, "The important thing for India is that Bush's policy to reject CTBT has helped it. His policy to control the Taliban has aided India's fight against terrorism and has influenced Pakistan's withdrawal of support to the Taliban, too."

Complete coverage:

Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi