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How to silence the Left

September 25, 2004

Germany, like India, produces indecisive outcomes in its elections. The result is coalition governments. When the Social Democrats and Greens get together, the resulting government is called a 'red-green coalition.'

Sometimes, either when the Greens don't have enough seats or when they are particularly obstreperous, it is even proposed that the two main rivals -- the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats -- join hands in what is called a 'grand coalition.'

What does this have to do with us in India? Well, the time may have come to work out an Indian variant of the grand coalition, chiefly to tell the Left where it gets off.

Armed with some 60 seats, accounting for about 11 per cent of the total, the Left has used the last five months to fully exploit its position as the grouping that props up the United Progressive Alliance government.

When invited to join the government and become part of the coalition, the Left parties refused. Now we know why. They want the power to influence decisions, without taking responsibility for the end result (which is why the Left Front government in West Bengal does many of the things that the Left parties will not allow in New Delhi).

Thus, firms are being privatised completely in Bengal, but this will not be allowed at the Centre. The finance minister talked to a leading light of the CPI(M), and presumably got his nod, before he included in his Budget speech the proposal to increase foreign investment limits in key sectors.

Only for the CPI(M) to oppose the idea tooth and nail as soon as the finance minister finished his speech. Ditto with this bogus controversy over who is on the consultative committees that have been set up by the Planning Commission.

The leading Left economist on the Planning Commission seems to have gone along with the lists of people invited to serve on the committees, but others have decided to raise the red flag over what is for all practical purposes a non-issue.

The government can't get the Left off its back because it needs those 60 seats for a majority. And the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party are anathema to each other, so even the suggestion that they team up seems outlandish. But the BJP is missing a trick here.

The real difference, perhaps the only one, between the two parties is on the issue of secularism and Hindutva. That's a fundamental difference, but the end result need not be unrelenting hostility on any and every issue.

When in opposition, Manmohan Singh used to argue that the BJP had been able to pass key legislation only because the Congress went along in the Rajya Sabha -- where the National Democratic Alliance was in a minority.

Especially since the NDA and UPA agendas on economic reform are practically indistinguishable (the NDA Cabinet discussed increased FDI limits in both aviation and telecom, for instance, not to speak of divestment/privatisation), there shouldn't be too much difficulty in the BJP now extending at least the occasional support when it comes to matters of economic reform that are held up by the Left.

Three results will be achieved. First, the BJP will be able to demonstrate that it is in fact a responsible opposition. Second, the BJP will be able to help push the reform process and improve the country's economic performance -- and for the nationalists in the BJP this is especially important in a regional context when China has been doing so much better and even Pakistan has recovered momentum in recent years.

Third, the BJP will be able to isolate the Left, for whom it has no love lost. The basis on which support is to be extended can be defined, perhaps with an Arun Shourie-like formation (no political party will oppose in any state or at the Centre what it has proposed in another).

In other words, the BJP will support any move by the UPA which had at some stage been mooted by the NDA during its term in office.

It could be argued that the BJP does not gain if the Manmohan Singh government does well. But, deftly handled, the BJP could project itself as displaying maturity and statesmanship -- as Yashwant Sinha has done with his statement on the Planning Commission's consultative committees.

Why, after one or two more statements like that, the tail might even stop trying to wag the dog.

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