I am sure you have heard this before: In Chinese, the term for “crisis” is a compound of “opportunity” and “danger”. The United Progressive Alliance government is in the midst of a crisis and it is not surprising that it confronts both danger and opportunity. What the former is has been spelt out ad nauseum by Communist Party of India (Marxist) General Secretary Prakash Karat, most recently after the Politburo meeting on Sunday — take one more step on the Indo-US nuclear deal and we will blow your government out of the water.
Not many have thought of the opportunity that the threat provides for the Congress party to take the much needed and long delayed step of redefining its politics and policies to align itself with today's realities — both economic and political. In other words, regaining its identity as India's pre-eminent political party, based on its programmes and principles, derived from its own history, instead of having to be in the awkward situation of being the dog which is wagged by the tail.
Ever since Jawaharlal Nehru passed away, the party has struggled for its soul. It has been assailed by the temptations of the Left and of the Right, and never quite regained its equipoise. There was a brief moment when, under Rajiv Gandhi the party began to move in that direction. The young prime minister adopted a pragmatic, forward looking approach that would have brought liberalisation a decade before it came. But he was brought down by a combination of scandals and bad karma.
Pandit Nehru had no problem with the Communists. His own history and understanding of the party went back to its very founding. He had witnessed the efforts of the Communists to penetrate the Congress and take over its agenda under the guise of the Congress Socialist Party faction within the party. He had seen how Communists had consolidated themselves in India by supporting the British during World War II, opposing the Quit India Movement and expanding their base at the expense of the Congress whose leaders were in jail.
So, after Independence, his approach was to pick and choose what he wanted. He adapted central planning to Indian circumstances — a private sector developing on the foundations of a centrally planned infrastructure. Where the Communists would have wanted alignment, his foreign policy, stubbornly sought non-alignment. It remained independent in spite of the West's co-option of Pakistan as a military ally. Panditji did not hesitate to fight the Communists as he did militarily in Telengana, and through democratic means in Kerala in 1957.
The problem was Indira Gandhi. In a bid to distance herself from the Congress old guard, she hocked the soul of the party to the Communists, of the CPI variety. They encouraged her to go back on solemn assurances to the former royalty and deny them privy purses, nationalise banks and other businesses. They were the most vociferous supporters of the Emergency that took away the common liberties of the people and took the opportunity to place party members and fellow travelers in various government bodies and educational institutions.
Indira paid back the debt by standing on the wrong side of history and refusing to openly condemn the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980. But thereafter she considered the debt paid and moved back to the political centre by beginning a process of rapprochement with the United States. The present confused attitude of the Congress party towards the Communists has come after the prime ministership of P.V. Narasimha Rao, who was a seasoned politician and knew what Communist politics was all about from Andhra Pradesh. Sonia Gandhi, on the other hand, has had little ground experience in the politics of the country. As a person who values loyalty, what she remembered, when the Indo-US nuclear crisis first began to loom last August, was that the Communists had unreservedly backed her on the most important issue of her political life — the BJP's attempt to raise the issue of her foreign origin. In refusing to precipitate the break last October, she has made what could be a major political blunder.
She does not realise that loyalty and ideological consistency are highly over-rated virtues in Indian politics. What really matters is opportunism. Take the Communists — they have not hesitated to ally themselves to fundamentalists like Abdul Naseer Mahdani to break the Indian Union Muslim League’s hold in north Kerala. Such opportunism has a old history in Leninist parties. World War II was a war of imperialist redivision till June 22, 1941, thereafter it became the People’s war.
Or, consider the DMK. It was part of the national coalition with the BJP for six long years. Yet two weeks ago we heard Mr. Karunanidhi declaiming on the importance of the UPA to stand with the Left so as to defend secularism. What the present situation then offers is a chance for the Congress to dump allies like the DMK and “friends” like the Communists.
The DMK should be shed because, in baldly opportunistic terms, Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK is almost certainly likely to sweep the coming elections. There are no ideological differences between the two, so the choice is simple — try and hook the winner.
Dumping the Left is important for the long-term future of the party. With the Left’s stranglehold, the Congress will be on permanent life-support. If it must flourish, it needs to catch up with what was wrought in 1991. There is need to achieve complete privatisation of the public sector, trade liberalisation and financial deregulation and reform of labour laws. Politically, India needs to get involved in the new and evolving Asian security architecture that connects democratic Japan, Australia, Asean and the United States.
The Communists’ stand on the nuclear deal reflects less of its Luddite tendencies and more of its refusal to recognise the geopolitical realities of the post-Soviet world. The old CPI is of little consequence. Mr. Bardhan bellowing “bhar mein jayey stock market” (the hell with the stock market) sums up his world which denies reality for the sake of alleged ideological purity. All it does is to make for good bytes on TV, but it signifies little otherwise. The CPI(M)’s vigour comes from a general secretary who should have been in command of the party in 1980. In 2008, he is an anachronism. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the transformation of the Chinese economy, orthodox Marxism-Leninism has lost whatever rationale it had. It is not surprising that the CPI(M) has lost whatever vitality it had. Its programme refuses to account for the enormous changes that have taken place in the world and within India. This leads to its mulish stand on fighting US imperialism at a time when the US is finally declining, or to, Canute-like, resist economic reform that will make India a better market-based economy.
The Congress party's reassertion of its own political identity will set the basis for its clash with the BJP. Given its broad-based social and economic programmes and its secular politics, the field is stacked in the Congress’ favour, no matter what the result of the next election is. But to achieve its destiny, the party needs to transform this crisis into a historic opportunity. To this end, to use another Chinese saying, it must seize this hour, this day.
This article first appeared in Mail Today July 2, 2008