Just as storm clouds hung over India Gate this week and monsoon winds raced through the corridors of power, churning the Indo-US nuclear deal in their wake, the “M” word finally spilled right out into the open.
The Samajwadi Party, or SP, must watch out for the interests of its core constituency—the Muslims—and oppose the nuclear deal with the US, said senior Left leader M.K. Pandhe. Now, Pandhe is a politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, as well as chief of the Leftist Centre of Indian Trade Unions, which means that he is a very senior leader in a party which—over the last year—has steadfastly opposed India’s attempt to use the US to carve out a larger role for itself in the world.
If Pandhe had restricted himself to all the criticisms that Prakash Karat, general secretary of the CPM, has employed against the Indo-US nuclear deal so far—namely, that it would forever bind India into a cinch with America and result in a complete loss of Delhi’s strategic independence—then it would have been a respectful iteration of the party line.
But Pandhe’s invocation of the Indian Muslim as an anti-George Bush political constituency is dangerous on several counts. First, it somehow implies that Indian Muslims—as versus Indian Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis—are somehow much more sensitive to the US attack on the Muslim world (Iraq, Afghanistan).
Secondly, it injects a religious dimension into foreign policymaking, a preserve that every government irrespective of political colour has fiercely protected from domestic and international criticism.
An example here is of the 2002 Gujarat riots, when the European Union came down on India like a ton of bricks, and the then foreign secretary, Kanwal Sibal, repudiated all calls for discussion on the subject, saying the Indian political system was more than capable of self-rectification.
Still, let us look into what Comrade Pandhe’s really saying as well as to the extent religious politics affects the CPM’s own vote banks in the two states that it counts upon, West Bengal and Kerala.
Truth is, the Muslim population in West Bengal is a significant 26%, while in Kerala it is a more impressive one-third. Pandhe’s statement makes sense if you look at it in the context of the coming polls in West Bengal in November. Since the CPM fared so badly in the recent panchayat elections in that state, it’s dead worried that the Congress (whether or not it is allied with other regional parties such as Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress) will use the nuclear deal to deepen wounds at Nandigram and Singur.
SP leaders snigger at Pandhe, and thereby at the CPM’s transparent fear that the party could align with the Congress and prevent the fall of the government on the floor of Parliament over the nuclear deal, and later, arrive at poll adjustments with the Congress at the time of elections.
Of course, the SP remains somewhat nervous about the 18% Muslim vote in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and how this community will react, in case an election is fought with the nuclear deal as the main plank.
However, these leaders also point out that its main battle in UP is with Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party, or BSP, not with the Left, which hardly has a presence in that state. While Pandhe’s Muslims-are-worried-about-Bush statement may strike a chord, chances are that the power of electoral arithmetic will be stronger.
And yet, several SP stalwarts spoke of another major fear lurking at the back of their minds: If reports in the Western press, that speak of Israeli fighter aircraft practice runs on behalf of the Bush administration to bomb Iran ever come true, then god help Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi and the nuclear deal.
Over the last year, as the Indian media has debated the nuclear deal threadbare, alongside India’s ever-changing role in the brave, new world order, there has been one thread that has basically withstood several political arguments: The Indo-US nuclear deal is good for India; at the same time, the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq is terrible not only for Iraq, for the region, but also for America itself.
And so, nearly three years after India and the US signed an agreement on 17 July 2005, to bring India on board, the domestic debate over the nuclear deal could, finally, be nearing the end of the road.
The Singh government has, since, pretty much poked under every stone and gone down every little lane and thoroughfare.
The cabinet committee on political affairs, which has all the United Progressive Alliance allies on board, has passed the deal, as has the cabinet committee on security. The Prime Minister has been to Parliament several times for a discussion. In the last few weeks, the government even reached out to CPM leaders Jyoti Basu and West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, in the hope that Karat will be persuaded to reach a compromise.
So, it’s all come down to two people, Singh and Gandhi. In the last week, the Prime Minister hasn’t budged from his stand. And by all accounts, this time around Gandhi is fully behind him.
Jyoti Malhotra is Mint’s diplomatic affairs editor and writes on the intersection of foreign policy, trade and politics every week.
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