Sunday, August 28, 2005

Dr Manmohan Mukherjee

The Asian Age India | M.J.Akbar

Since the question has not been asked seriously, it has not been answered properly. But it remains the dominant dilemma of this political season as the Left-Congress-Plus coalition government enters the fertile phase of its second year in power: Does the Left have a strategy?

A cat-and-mouse game is not strategy, even when roles change: sometimes the Left is the cat, and on occasions the Congress does the purring.

That is tactical, and one can see such tactics extending into a love-fest. Since the Congress has no hope of even scratching the surface in the next Assembly elections in Bengal, we could very well see a Congress offer to stick to mock combat rather than opt for real hostility, an offer that the pragmatists within the CPI(M) will happily accept. Of course there are often regrettable casualties on one's own side because of friendly fire, but commanders cannot be blamed for trivia.

It would be an error to believe that our Marxist Comrades would be content with Bengal, or that their politics is done without long-term thinking. If Dr Manmohan Singh, who again complained recently that economic reforms were no-hoper in the current arithmetic of the coalition, wants to get an idea of what the Left strategy could be, he should order a few pots of tea (a meal of hilsa fish and rice might be too distracting) and invite his colleague Pranab Mukherjee over.

They should discuss another Mukherjee, Ajoy, who was as old in 1967 as Pranab is in 2005. They should discuss another Congress, the Bangla Congress, a flash in the history of our nation but one that had enduring consequences, because the Bangla Congress began the process of the disintegration of the Indian National Congress. Pranab Mukherjee was a young star of the Bangla Congress, and Ajoy Mukherjee was its chief.

In those turbulent days there was order in one respect: Assembly and Parliament elections were held at the same time. The curse of permanent elections had not visited the Indian polity. The elections of 1967 were dramatic.

The Congress monopoly over India was established in 1952, reaffirmed in 1957 and started showing signs of wear and tear in 1962. The Congress was fortunate that the elections of 1962 were held before the war with China or 1967 might have happened in 1962.

The well-preserved fa├žade, constructed since 1947 out of secure borders, internal unity and a socialist economic programme, began to crumble with the defeat in the war with China, as if it was symbolic of much more than political illusion and military incompetence that lost the war.

Defeat made the whole of the Himalayas vulnerable; language and sectarian urges from Kashmir to Tamil Nadu created seismic rifts; rural neglect and urban stagnation were to burst into widespread disaffection, most startlingly in the form of a Naxalite movement, fully aided and abetted by China. (The official slogan of the Naxalite movement was: "Chairman Mao is our Chairman."

How unpatriotic is that?) The 1965 war with Pakistan, a possible catastrophe that was converted by brilliant military panache into a stalemate, fuelled inflation and by 1966 huge swathes of the north, with Bihar as its epicentre, was in the grip of full-fledged famine. Bengal, then among the most industrialised states in the country, was in a rage, but its Congress chief minister, Prafulla Chandra Sen, behaved as if life had not moved beyond the 1950s.

The Congress split; and the Bangla Congress joined what became known as the United Front. It included the Left. Marxists who had been jailed for being potential traitors in 1962 were ministers of the Bengal government in 1967. Marxists do not take these things personally. Jyoti Basu, in jail in 1962, was home minister five years later. Ajoy Mukherjee became chief minister.

The story of the UF is too sordid even for journalism. Suffice it to say that there was a moment when Ajoy Mukherjee went on a fast against his own government. Such cupidity had to be punished, and it was. Mrs Indira Gandhi revived the Congress, and it returned to office in 1972: how could it not? She could do nothing wrong. People danced on the streets when she nationalised banks and they danced in their homes as well when Bangladesh was liberated. Such euphoria proved to be Band-Aid when the country needed surgery for cancer, and the Emergency ended the credibility of the Congress for generation.

The Marxists, in the meanwhile, had moved one scale up on the Marxist ladder of evolution. From the United Front they had graduated to a more logical, and ideological, Left Front. The Left Front won power in 1977, implemented the kind of land reforms that Nehru had promised in the 1950s and then forgotten under "bourgeois" pressure inside his party. The Left Front will win power in 2006, and there is no apparent reason why they should not be in office in Bengal, continuously, longer than the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. (Who knows: if the CPSU had been forced to accept democracy, it might still be in office!)

Is Dr Manmohan Singh the Ajoy Mukherjee of the 21st century, on a national scale?

The last time Communists supported the Congress in Delhi was when Mrs Gandhi had declared an Emergency, and they were on the wrong side of history. Fortunately for them, only the CPI was with Mrs Gandhi. 2004 and 2005 is vastly different. The Congress is not much stronger than the Bangla Congress was in 1967. Dr Manmohan Singh, like Ajoy Mukherjee, is a very decent and very honest man without much personal political chemistry.

There is nothing wrong with the coalition, as there was nothing wrong in 1967, except that while there may be a common minimum programme, there is no common political or economic agenda. It is a government that can last as long as it likes, but governance will be difficult to sustain. You do not need to be a soothsayer to suggest that the general elections of 2004 produced an accidental partnership, and were a penultimate stage in the evolution towards a stable coalition.

The Communists have consciously kept themselves out of office, while they make sure that they remain in power. They do not want to pay the price of being in office when the next stage of accountability comes. If the ballot carries them to office then they want to be sure that they can implement policies and create a cadre that will ensure that they remain there. The Congress will not be part of the Left Front for two reasons.

First, because the party's heart has moved to the right. Second, the Marxists will occupy the dominant space in any coalition of their choice, a role that the Congress cannot concede. It is possible that the next election could be a battle between three fronts: a UPA headed by the Congress; an NDA marshalled by the BJP and a significant alliance controlled by the Marxists. The Left will obviously hope to cash in on the disenchantment towards both the BJP and the Congress, after the voters' experience between 1998 and 2008.

Dr Manmohan Singh can take comfort from one lesson of the 1960s. Voters do not reward any party that brings down a government arbitrarily, or for reasons that cannot be adequately explained. The Left is not going to risk an invitation to suicide. Security regulations prevent the Prime Minister from taking the normal roads towards the international airport in Delhi, but if he did he would find graffiti on some of them, put up by the Marxist youth wings. "The future is ours" they say. They don't see the present as theirs. They are a serious political party, which means that they have the ability to wait.

Hurry is the preference of those who think they might never become ministers again. Marxists view power in terms of generations: after two decades of Jyoti Basu, two decades of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.

The Congress and the Left alternate between cat and mouse to keep the government going. The Darwinian theory of Indian politics is waiting for one of the two to become a real cat: not just one with whiskers and a meow, but one with a mane and a roar.

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