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Left looks to cut losses and exit by September

By Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi
Last updated on: May 30, 2008 23:14 IST
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The United Progressive Alliance government is apprehensive that regardless of the Indo-US nuclear deal, the Left parties may withdraw support before September 2008.

The Left parties have concerns over price rise, inflation and "mismanagement" of the economy. Today's inflation figure of 8.1% can only add to the Left's fears.

The domino effect set in after the Karnataka election results has started surfacing in New Delhi. The signals coming from the Central Committee of the Communist Party of India, which met in New Delhi yesterday, is on expected lines. The UPA is branded as unpopular and the Congress is a sinking ship for the Left leaders.

The powerful Left members from states like Kerala and West Bengal have told the top brass that if the issue of price rise and terrorism is not handled in a politically savvy manner, then the countdown to withdraw support to the UPA government should start.

Within both the Congress and the CPM, a debate is on over the future course of action. The Congress Working Committee is meeting on May 31 to discuss the Karnataka results, price rise and other hot issues.

Going by the logic of the Left parties' thinking, August-September 2008 could be the appropriate time for them to make an exit and cut their losses.

A problem of credibility is being faced by the CPM and CPI in opposing the UPA's policy over price rise and its "neo-liberal" policies.

To establish their trustworthiness among the Left's typical vote bank, Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechuri's criticism of the UPA government is becoming sharper and shaper. When Karat was accused of towing China's interests by FICCI's Amit Mitra and some strategic analysts, Karat reacted strongly and branded Mitra and K Subrahmanyam as American lobbyists. The Left parties have condemned the Planning Commission as a Super Cabinet and are severely criticising its deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's buddy.

The CPM claims, 'The Planning Commission is pushing, in the name of public-private participation, private aggrandisement of public resources. It has insisted on the involvement of the private sector in the railway freight corridor.'

Their press release on price rise, nuclear deal and uranium shortage shows that the Left parties' alliance with the Congress has started hurting them badly.

Their press release on oil prices asked the government to recover the profit on oil from private oil companies like Reliance.

It said, 'With crude oil prices now exceeding $ 100 per barrel, it is necessary that windfall gains be recovered from all the private and joint venture oil-producing companies like M/s Cairns, Reliance, Essar etc extracting oil and gas in India. When these contractors participated in the New Exploration Licensing Policy, none of them could have envisaged crude oil prices beyond $ 30 per barrel. It would be a failure on the government's part to allow upstream contractors additional gain of $ 70-80 per barrel without any extra work. Many other countries have gone ahead and re-negotiated their contracts with the threat of imposing windfall taxes on such profits.'

Prakash Karat and other leaders understand well that the law of diminishing returns has set in and there are no political gains if they continue to support this government.

There is an urgent requirement to cut losses and cross over fully to the opposition space before the Bharatiya Janata Party overtakes the national debate. The Left parties' thinking is that before the BJP sets the agenda for the next round of debate and starts attacking the Congress and UPA's rule, the CPM and CPI need to find their own space at a safe distance from the Congress.

The Left parties are unlikely to withdraw support to the government over the Indo-US nuclear deal unless they are forced by a surprise move from the government. However, since allies of the government like Lalu Yadav and Sharad Pawar don't want to displease the Left to such an extent, the Congress is unlikely to operationalise the deal in a rebellious manner.

The stumbling block to operationalising the nuclear deal at the International Atomic Energy Agency and beyond is the fear of an uncertain post-election scenario.

It perfectly suits the CPM's strategy to withdraw support to Dr Singh's government on the issue of price rise. The Left parties need some decent time to get their act together before the general elections. The first step towards the goal is to raise the volume of their opposition to the UPA government on the economic front.
The Karnataka results are a pointer to the BJP's strategy. Since the last four years the CPM was cosying up to the Congress and offering the explanation that their outside support to the UPA is successful in stopping the BJP from coming to power.
But, the Congress could not stop the BJP's march in Karnataka. The Left parties have seen that the BJP did not play the Hindutva card in Karnataka. Automatically, then, the Congress's so-called secular image becomes redundant. When the BJP underplays Hindutva then the Congress is not in a position to play its secular card. In such a situation, the Left parties find themselves a loser because a re-energised BJP will attract more allies for political partnership.

That reduces the possibility of a third front even further. 

It's a curious political setting where the Left parties are confronting the government and are desperately looking for an exit route to re-establish their credibility after enjoying power without responsibility.

But, in the process, the Nandigram protests, violence during the panchayat election there and infighting in the Kerala unit has considerably damaged their reputation.

The BJP is keeping its fingers crossed while remaining alert. It knows that an early election is entirely Congress president Sonia Gandhi's call. Meanwhile, Dr Singh is looking at the situation slipping out of the hands of his government.

His party's support to the nuclear deal is more in words than in deeds.

So far, Sonia Gandhi is feeling secure in maintaining the status quo and refuses to take a radical step in favour of the nuclear deal or in calling the Left's bluff. As she is calculating the impact of the recent losses, her government is set to enter an instable phase, sooner than later.

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Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi
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