Communist parties may be disappearing across most of the world, but in India they remain a significant political force.
Indian communists are wagging the dog
NEW DELHI // Communist parties may be disappearing across most of the world, but in India they remain a significant political force. With just 59 MPs in a precariously balanced 545-member parliament, the communists plunged India into political chaos this week by withdrawing support for the coalition government of Manmohan Singh, the prime minister. The four parties, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or the CPM, claimed a contentious nuclear accord, which permits India to buy civil nuclear fuel and technology from the United States and retain its strategic weapons programme, while staying outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, would be hobbled by Washington's "hegemonic and imperialist" designs.
They were also fearful that the deal could expose Indian foreign policy to US influence, an assertion Mr Singh's administration dismisses. In turn, it claims the atomic deal, which would reverse more than three decades of New Delhi's nuclear isolation, is essential to meeting the country's soaring energy requirements. Ending months of wrangling and suspense over the atomic pact, the CPM's general secretary, Prakash Karat, withdrew communist support on Wednesday, accusing the government of "disregarding" parliament and "not being transparent" with the nuclear deal with the US.
Following the pullout, Mr Singh's Congress Party-led government, anxious to avoid calling general elections before their May 2009 deadline, now faces a majority test in parliament later this month. After their best ever performance in the 2004 elections, the communists emerged with 59 MPs and provided Mr Singh's 19-party federal coalition with a parliamentary majority. But the communists declined to join the government, choosing instead to support it from outside, leading to widespread criticism they were wielding influence over government decision-making without taking any of the responsibility of governance and public accountability.
"They preferred to be the eternal campus rebels, always oppositional, always agitational, but never responsible or adult enough to recognise that in India, managing change is all about negotiating myriad interest groups," said Sagirka Ghose, a political commentator. Committed to fostering change through democracy and the ballot box, however, India's communists distanced themselves from the Maoist insurgents who had been warring with the Indian state since the 1960s in support of farmers and peasants rights.
Since 2000, Maoist insurgents, known locally as Naxalites after the village of Naxalbari in eastern India where they launched their movement in 1967, had established control over about 160 of India's 602 districts, prompting Mr Singh to call them the country's "biggest internal security challenge ever". For the past four years, federal coalition MPs have maintained the communists continually hold the government and the country to ransom with what they consider an outdated and unrealistic ideology.
The communists have confronted Mr Singh's administration not only over military and strategic ties with the United States and Israel, but also on economic issues. The communists have stalled pension, banking and labour reforms, as well as the privatisation of India's crowded airports, handicapping the country's aviation industry at a time of exponential growth. Leftist-controlled labour unions remain powerful across India especially in the vast, underperforming public sector, and in eastern Bengal state they virtually paralysed the state's industrial growth forcing its once booming businesses and manufacturing units to either close down or shift elsewhere.
Militant unions also closed numerous tea gardens across the province over such issues as privatisation, costing tens of thousands of impoverished tea workers badly needed salaries. "The arrangement [of communists supporting the government] emerged as a classic case of the tail wagging the dog with the leftists forcing their will upon Singh's administration whenever they wanted their political ends to be vindicated," said Dorab Sopariwala, a political analyst.
Where India's communists have ruled - Bengal state for over 30 years, sporadically in southern Kerala province and the small north-eastern Tripura region bordering Bangladesh - they have made only minor concessions to modernity and free market principles. Claiming that no state can "quarantine" itself from the globalised economy, they selectively welcomed foreign investment, providing it augmented existing domestic production capacity, upgraded technology and generated jobs.
On foreign policy the communists pressure the government to support Iran and the Palestinian cause for an independent homeland, disapproving of India's burgeoning security and military ties with Israel, which have quietly proliferated in recent years. The India-US logistics support agreement, permitting the two militaries reciprocal use of facilities for maintenance, servicing, communications, refuelling and medical care, that was close to completion has, under communist pressure, also been deferred. So has the Container Security Initiative, a US-led non-proliferation and counterterrorism measure initiated after the September 11 attacks.
India's Communist Party - before it split in 1964 into the Marxists supported by Beijing and the Communist Party of India backed by Moscow - was the world's first communist party to be democratically elected, in Kerala in the late 1950s. Taking place during the Cold War, their election caused widespread alarm not only across the country but worldwide, prompting the United States to step up its covert anti-communist drive in India.
"Since independence [in 1947] India's communists have played a significant role in India's polity at variance with their political muscle or their MPs in parliament," said Seema Mustafa, a political analyst sympathetic to the communists. And because of their transparency and the discipline of their party cadres, Ms Mustafa said, their chastening role under successive corrupt, nepotistic and disorganised administrations, had been a largely positive one.