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Sushma & Brinda, Mamata & Sonia

July 12, 2010 11:05 IST
A Left-Right tactical unity is emerging as the Opposition's strategy to deal with a resurgent Congress, writes Sanjaya Baru

Six years of a Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, and the prospect of another five, drove the Left Front, the bloc of mainstream Indian communist parties, into the arms of a self-declared "Left-of-Centre" Sonia Gandhi in 2004. Six years of a Congress party-led government and the prospect of defeat in its pocket borough of West Bengal are now driving the Left closer to the BJP.

For today's generation of political analysts who think that the BJP is a political untouchable for the Left, recall not just 1977, but also 1989. If both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi could bring the Left and the BJP together, why not Sonia Gandhi?! The Left and the BJP have been on the same, anti-Congress, side before and can come together again. They just have to find a "secular" cause. It was democracy in 1977, corruption in 1989. It will be inflation and anti-Americanism today.

This is the political project of a "Left-of-Centre" BJP leader Sushma Swaraj. Swaraj neither has Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) roots, nor is she the Uma Bharati type. Swaraj earned her political spurs chasing Indira Gandhi during the latter's comeback trail by-election from Chikmagalur in 1978. Swaraj ran up every podium that Gandhi had walked down from, after addressing a public meeting, to harangue the same crowd and campaign for Gandhi's opponent. At that time, Swaraj was not yet a member of the BJP. Her political mentors at the time were hardcore socialists like former prime minister Chandrashekhar and trade union leader George Fernandes. It was only in 1980 that Swaraj joined the BJP.

Swaraj revealed her cards in the last session of Parliament when she walked to waiting television cameras holding up communist leader Gurudas Dasgupta's hands on one day and hugging Brinda Karat on another. Battered by Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee, the Left is desperate to retain its hold on West Bengal and needs all the help it can get to do so. If the Congress party and Banerjee make common cause, as they seem to be doing given that Pranab Mukherjee has stepped down as party chief in West Bengal, they have the potential to unseat the Left.

It looked like the Congress party was divided on that issue given the preference of some in the party for the "predictable" Left over the "unpredictable" Banerjee. But, if the mood of the people in Bengal is for change, it will be difficult for the Congress party to resist that and hedge its bets. It will have to come on the side of Banerjee. What has got both the Congress party and the Left in Bengal worried is the growing support for Banerjee among the minorities, the farming community and the urban middle class. This, more than anything else, is driving CPI-M's comrades into the friendly embrace of a Swaraj-led BJP.

It is now clear that party veteran Lal Krishna Advani has decided to back the Swaraj strategy. The BJP's decision to re-admit veteran Jaswant Singh, who did well contesting from Darjeeling, also shows the party is recanting on its anti-Jinnah tirade against Singh. Singh has the added advantage of having friends among non-Congress parties.

Clearly, the BJP is trying to live down its reputation as a Muslim minority-bashing party. Even Narendra Modi waxes eloquent these days about the opinion surveys done among the Muslim traders of Ahmedabad who say they are making more money today than ever before!

Both the BJP and the Left are well aware that they have to project "secular" issues like their concern about inflation, their opposition to the nuclear liability Bill and the alleged "pro-US" stance of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to cement their tactical friendship. Any flare-up of communal tension would divide the two. One should expect some clever Congress leader to be taking that into account in working out the party's strategic response to the Opposition's tactics.

Old world Congressmen know a thing or two about how one keeps the Left and the BJP apart! To what extent the Congress party will succeed in keeping the Left and the BJP apart, without yielding on the government's economic and foreign policy agenda, will determine the course of politics in the monsoon session of Parliament.

The really tragic aspect of this evolving Left-Right alliance, as most visibly demonstrated by last Monday's Bharat Bandh, is that it is not forged by any positive developmental agenda. Unlike during the Emergency, when the BJP and the Left united to fight for the restoration of democracy, or even in 1989 when the focus was on corruption in high places, this time much of the agenda is disruptive.

The Left-BJP unity against the civil nuclear cooperation agreement in the previous Lok Sabha and against the nuclear liability Bill in this Lok Sabha is a cynical ploy, exploiting traditional anti-Americanism, that serves no larger national interest today.

Similarly, the agitation against energy price increases is an entirely cynical one not based on a genuine public grievance given that most opinion polls have shown repeatedly that people expect to pay more for petrol and petroleum products when international prices rise.

Corruption could have been a "secular" issue uniting the BJP and the Left, but the Congress party has been smart enough to light a fire under the BJP's seat in Karnataka by going after the "mining brothers". In any case, political parties as a whole have no interest in using corruption in high places as a mobilising platform any longer.

So, expect a disruptive and stormy monsoon session of Parliament. Both Swaraj and Karat can match Banerjee's voice, even if Gandhi sits sphinx-like!

Sanjaya Baru