Thursday, 19 May, 2022
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Will the bully now do what bullies usually do when their bluff is called?

A deadly combination of political inexperience, ideological rigidity and personal hubris has brought the King Canutes of the Left to an interesting turning point.

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So, what do the buccaneers of the Left do now? Just when they were savouring the completion of their conquest of both Houses of Parliament, the Prime Minister has spoilt their party by defying them to do what they want because he won’t concede any more space on the nuclear (read, larger foreign and strategic policy) issue.

This is the all-conquering comrades’ moment of truth. For more than three years now, they have got used to the Congress shivering in submission the moment they opened their mouths. Never in the history of coalition politics has the government of the day allowed itself to be treated with so much disdain — and in public.

Even when the Congress supported minority governments from outside, its leaders never used, for their barbs, the kind of language that even the minor megaphone of the Left constituents use about this one. Nor did they interfere in the government’s day-to-day functioning the way the Left has done. The exercise of veto, for them, had become a daily ritual rather than exception.

Not only that, they undermined so thoroughly what was, after all, their own government that even more than be just a vital partner with veto rights, they became some kind of an authority on advance rulings. On most issues on foreign and economic policy, it seemed as if the Congress ministers had to seek the Left’s clearance in advance before opening their mouths. Legislation supported by a wide majority in this Parliament has been waiting in deep-freeze just because the Left, with the leveraged power of 60 plus, would veto the wish of 360.

Frankly, you can’t even blame so many leaders of the Left for having become such puffed-up bullies. A B Bardhan and Gurudas Dasgupta, whose party can never even get in the double figures — unless at the sufferance of the CPM — have been holding out threats of withdrawing support to their government once a week.

My friend Karan Thapar, in fact, can conjure up national headlines at will — all he has to do is invite a Left leader to the studio. Next day’s front pages are guaranteed with one more threat to pull down this government, to graduate from barking to biting. There was never one word of protest from the Congress. Not even a whimper. Its leaders felt throttled by the NCMP, that self-inflicted Treaty of Versailles.

Also read: The Left is dead, but India deserves a new Left that dares to think afresh

But, because the Left leadership still thinks their politics through more thoroughly, at least in a tactical sense, the Congressmen were also psyched into believing many myths. One, that the bully hated them so much, and was so reckless, he was going to pull the plug any day. Second, they bought a most cleverly spread canard — supported by the capital’s sizeable Left liberal rent-a-quote intellectual elite — that there was such a wide schism between the Prime Minister and 10, Janpath. That this distance was not just of detail and style, but that of basic ideology. That sometimes Sonia Gandhi — like Indira Gandhi in her street-fighting years — was naturally inclined to the Left and getting as impatient with Dr Singh as M K Pandhe or Gurudas Dasgupta.

Once again, this canard was supported by a small cluster of Congress self-seekers, its new class of Commie-come-latelys who made a great leap of faith — and conspiracy — across the ideological pond, believing that that is what their leader wished. And that the surest way of earning brownie points with her was to undermine her own handpicked Prime Minister.

Maybe the new generation of Left leaders also bought that delusion. They went to Sonia routinely to complain about this Prime Minister’s policies and style and probably mistook her silences and non-committal nods for agreement with them. This hubris was strengthened by the way the Congress party’s political managers botched the choice of the Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates. Once again, the Left got the impression they could walk all over the Congress at will. And can you really blame them for drawing their obvious conclusion as several — at least four of the more senior members of this Cabinet — prostrated themselves before the commissars with job applications for President and Vice-president.

Egos got even more bloated as the Left rejected one candidate after another in public, stating their reasons more explicitly than any BCCI selection committee chairman does while dropping a player. One was too old and unfit for the job, they said, another went to Sai Baba, a third wore his faith on his sleeve — literally. Hamstrung by the arithmetic of this Parliament, the Congress took all this insult and public humiliation. It even kept quiet when the Left’s handpicked Vice President attached its foreign policy, the Prime Minister’s own article of faith, and even voted for him. The Left obviously deluded itself into believing the worm will never turn.

But a deadly combination of political inexperience, ideological rigidity and personal hubris has brought the King Canutes of the Left to this interesting turning point. Now, just before they set out for the southern coast to stop the waves as the Indian Navy exercises with four other “friendly” ones, from the US, Singapore, Australia and Japan — so much to the irritation of the First Friend, China — they have to take a more serious call.

The Prime Minister has thrown a challenge: learn your part of the coalition dharma or do what you want. To leave no doubts, he has even chosen a paper in Kolkata to send out that message. Will the bully now do do what bullies usually do in such situations: shut up and look for a face-saver? Or will they finally bite and risk a national election when they are so wounded from friendly fire in both their pocket boroughs?

This will test both the nerve and the intellect of the new Left leadership. And if they find the dilemma too painful, they would do well to seek sage advice from the one comrade who knew the art of political negotiation and ideological flexibility, the one man who knew realpolitik is different from a JNU debate and who knows better than anybody that in a democracy, no politics can be a zero-sum game.

His name is Harkishen Singh Surjeet and sure enough, if he was still in control, he would never have let the Left paint itself into such a tight corner.

Also read: The party is over and there isn’t much left of the Left in India


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