The neighbourhood is happily awash with the republican spirit, but India—often described as the boldest, grandest democratic experiment in the modern world—seems to be self-destructing in the grip of a Matthew Arnold moment (“wandering between two worlds, one dead/the other powerless to be born”).
Perhaps it’s a case of too much democracy, a variant of the pehle aap (after you) school of thought gone out of control. Neither Prime Minister Manmohan Singh nor Sonia Gandhi belong to the Lucknow gharana (school; popular for its politeness), but clearly, their Left partners-in-arms believe that as long as they provide those 61 members of Parliament that are key to keeping the United Progressive Alliance government afloat, their idea of India must prevail.
And so, we had the PM going to Bawana in the outer Delhi constituency earlier this week to lay the foundation of a 1,500MW gas-based power plant, while foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee was breaking bread with US President George W. Bush and US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice in Washington. Both sought to enthuse their bored audiences with similar messages: As the economy continues to grow at 8-9%, the country must develop several sources of energy to feed its constantly burgeoning appetite. The sub-text of both speeches reflected the same desire to go ahead with the Indo-US nuclear deal. Except, both Bawana and Washington know exactly where the real power lies. Not at 7, Race Course Road (the PM’s residence) or even at 10, Janpath (Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s residence), but in a sparsely furnished room on the second floor of AK Gopalan Bhawan in Delhi, inhabited by the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Prakash Karat.
By this time next week, Karat will likely have been anointed general secretary again by the party congress that will take place in Coimbatore. Whereupon he’ll return to the Capital, refreshed and ready to do battle with those in the Congress?ready to sell out for a few pieces of American silver.Perhaps the Congress will continue to perfect the role of supplicant it has played to the Left, so far; perhaps not. Several stories about the Congress hoping to reinject itself with the independence serum by the time the current Budget session?ends?in May are doing the rounds in?leafy Lutyens’ Delhi.
One goes like this: Once the Finance Bill is passed with the help of the Left, the Congress will tell Karat and company that it simply must follow its conscience, and tell the US to take the draft agreement that has been painstakingly negotiated with the International Atomic Energy Agency to the next stage, that is to the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
Even if the Left withdraws support thereafter, as it has often threatened to—and good Communists always keep their word—the Congress would have protected itself by having passed the Finance Bill. That will keep the money flowing and the business of government chugging along until fresh elections can be called, perhaps later this year.
Truth is, the Congress party is shilly-shallying over several issues—pension funds, Sethusamudram, farmer suicides and the Indo-US nuclear deal—and this has meant that its fund of goodwill is rapidly diminishing. The government is seen as ineffectual, if well-meaning. Even the Matthew Arnold moment is passing. The latest example of this is the treatment of the Dalai Lama over the Tibet issue. When Chinese premier Wen Jiabao applauded the Centre last week for keeping the Tibetan spiritual leader and his followers under control, the government soaked in the applause and congratulated itself for its “pragmatic” policy on Tibet.
New Delhi has let it be known in the past that it was none other than Jawaharlal Nehru, the first PM of India, who had signed the trade agreement with China in 1954 and described Tibet as a “part of China”; and that the Dalai Lama and the erstwhile Panchen Lama had been invited to celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of the birth of the Buddha in 1957, and although the Dalai Lama had even then wanted to stay back in India, Nehru had insisted they return to Tibet, because he had promised the Chinese they would do so.
Except, someone forgot to tell the Centre that Wen’s coloured comments had gone down badly with the people and most political parties,?except for the?Communist?parties?which declared that the whole Tibetan matter was China’s “internal affair”. China may be the world’s fastest rising power, and Sino-Indian trade booming at $38 billion (Rs1.52 trillion), but there was no reason why a revered Buddhist leader should be treated as shabbily as India has treated the Dalai Lama.
Around the time India’s ambassador to China Nirupama Rao was summoned to the Chinese foreign office (at 2am) to register Beijing’s protest at the fact that Tibetan protesters had scaled the Chinese embassy’s wall in New Delhi, the Dalai Lama’s appointment with vice-president Hamid Ansari was cancelled. And in meetings between the Dalai Lama and several newspaper editors, a government liaison officer sat in—something that had never happened before.
So, were the Communist parties to be blamed once again? After all,?the CPM?had been in the middle of a media storm some months ago for defending China’s right to go nuclear, but criticizing the Centre for negotiating a nuclear deal with the US. Karat riding the dragon may be a great idea for a political cartoon, but the truth, as usual, is much more complicated. Still, for a change, it might be a good idea for the Congress to get its fingers off the calculator, stop using its fractious coalition partners as an excuse and stand up for something it believes in. Such as its own idea of India.
Jyoti Malhotra is Mint’s diplomatic affairs editor and will write on the intersection of foreign policy, trade and politics every week. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org