Tehran builds bridges with India's leftNEW DELHI - Having failed to impress New Delhi over the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) vote, Tehran is looking at the next best option - working on India's left parties, on whose support the Congress Party-led Manmohan Singh government survives.
The left parties have virulently criticized the government for its anti-Iran vote at the IAEA, which could result in Tehran being brought before the United Nations Security Council over its nuclear program, and have threatened to launch countrywide agitation. Last week, leaders of the left parties met the prime minister in protest.
Recognizing the key role that the left plays in sustaining the government, senior Iranian diplomats in the capital have been meeting with left party leaders, praising their stand as well as impressing on them that pressure should be built on the government ahead of the November 25 IAEA board meeting that will decide whether Iran should be referred to the UN for possible sanctions.
The Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) cannot survive without left support. In the 2004 general elections, the Congress won 145 seats out of the total 539 declared results in parliament, so it could only muster a majority with the support of the Left Front, which won 64 seats.
The UPA relies on a few other like-minded parties, such as the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) to total more than the requisite 270 seats to continue in power. While the Congress also has the outside support of other regional outfits, such as the Samajwadi Party (SP)and the Bahujan Samaj Party, there is no way that the other parties could prop up the government should the left parties decide to withdraw support. The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 138 seats. Tehran senses the predicament. A senior Iranian diplomat met the Communist Party of India (CPI) national secretary D Raja on Wednesday at the party headquarters in the capital. The CPI is a prominent left party. While a CPI leader described the Iranian diplomat's visit as a "casual interaction", it is safe to assume that the meeting could only be very serious.
A spokesperson of the Iranian Embassy in Delhi told Asia Times Online, "Several officials of the Iranian Embassy have been meeting left party leaders, but we are not in a position to tell the nature of the interactions or the officials who have been speaking." According to reports, Iranian first secretary (political) Siamok Burhani and a couple more officials who met Raja had detailed discussions on the nuclear issue and were given a copy of the left's note on Delhi's vote at the IAEA. Burhani is said to have praised the left for supporting the Iranian case. The meeting with Raja comes ahead of a similar meeting with the Communist Party of India - Marxist (CPI - M) , another prominent left party. There are efforts to develop direct linkages with Forward Bloc and Revolutionary Socialist Party that form part of the left front.
According to some reports, Tehran is also looking to build bridges with other political outfits in India, especially those that enjoy considerable Muslim support, playing on pan-Islamic sentiments. The SP, which has the backing of Muslims in the large state of Uttar Pradesh, has already severely ridiculed New Delhi on the anti-Iran vote. The effort is also to rope in the RJD, a key coalition partner, with a sizeable Muslim base in another important state of Bihar, where state elections are due later this month.
It will not be easy for New Delhi to balance interests, though Manmohan has received full backing of the core group of the Congress Party, comprising top ministers and leaders, including power-behind-the-throne, Sonia Gandhi, on the IAEA vote. Some members have expressed fears that Muslim support for the Congress may be affected, but such suggestions have been brushed aside.
Delhi's vote at the IAEA was a reaction to hearings in the US Congress on a proposed India-US nuclear pact that will see India receive US assistance in developing its civil nuclear program. The possibility of the deal being blocked was emphasized in recent meetings of Indian leaders with President George W Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. By voting against Iran, New Delhi saved a key element of foreign policy - India's new-found high with Washington, which has termed as "very significant" India's anti-Iran vote. Bush even called Manmohan and thanked him.
In November, however, New Delhi may find the going much more difficult. With Tehran prodding the left, it could turn out to be a battle for New Delhi's survival if it chooses to go with the US-EU combine to take Iran to the UN.
Prakash Karat, the general secretary of the most prominent left party, the CPI - M, has sounded the bugle: "Just a few days of sustained American pressure has led the Manmohan Singh government to cave in ... Unlike India, Iran is a signatory of the [nuclear] Non-Proliferation Treaty and there is nothing substantial in the charges of violation and concealment leveled against it as revealed in the reports submitted by the IAEA inspections ... The stark truth is that India, in an unconscionable step, has ranged itself with the US and the Western powers and broken ranks with the non-aligned countries ... The prime minister is directly responsible for this state of affairs. The left parties cannot countenance this new direction of foreign policy ... By the next board meeting of the IAEA in November, the Indian government will have to undo the damage done."
New Delhi tired of left dictates
The Manmohan government is clearly tired of left dictates. This is not the first time that the left parties have taken umbrage at New Delhi's policy leanings. They have given a tough time on economic reforms, including privatization of airports and foreign direct investment in the retail sector, even calling nationwide strikes in protest.
Despite intervention by Sonia Gandhi, the issue of disinvestment of public-sector equipment-maker Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited remains deadlocked. The left also has problems with foreign investment in other sectors, as well as employee pension and provident-fund reforms. Though some of the criticism is well founded, there is a growing feeling, especially in government, that the left parties want to make matters difficult by design. This includes the possible formation of a third front government without the Congress and the BJP, which the left dislikes even more.
According to some observers, the left criticism is rooted in its ideology (even if outdated) rather than the pragmatic approach of Indian policy makers. Such opposition would not have been forthcoming if India had inked similar agreements with Russia or China, which would be seen as a victory of Marxist thought over capitalist and imperialist forces. It is another matter that China has embraced capitalism with a vigor that was never envisioned by its communist founders.
Earlier this year, the left parties raised a major row on a defense agreement that India and the US signed. In a statement the CPI - M said the pact would only help serve US strategic goals in Asia and "was fraught with serious consequences" for the country's strategic and security interests. "If this agreement is carried forward, India will be placing itself in the same category as Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, all traditional military allies of the United States," the statement said.
Many see the shrill left opposition as more to do with practical politics. The states of West Bengal and Kerala will be electing new governments soon. Most of the 64 seats that the left holds in parliament are from these regions. The Congress and the left parties will be fighting a head-to-head battle in the elections, which makes the support of the left to the Congress in Delhi a little piquant.
The two sides will have to present different agendas to the people of the states. While there is a strong constituency that supports economic reforms, there is equal opposition to the same by sections that belong to trade unions of government organizations, as well as farmers and peasants in the hinterland yet unaffected by growth and reforms. A firm anti-US stand also goes down well with them, given the socialist/Marxist leanings of power to the people as against the individual.
The left realizes that economic reforms are important. It is a paradox that the government of West Bengal, a left bastion for long, has been rooting for foreign capital to boost the state's economy, in contrast to the stand of the party in Delhi. But, public posturing is a different calling.
The question, however, is whether the left's criticism will result in curtailing New Delhi's policy decisions, including India-US relations. While the government has been trying to mollycoddle the left, the Manmohan-Sonia combine has been pushed into a corner.
Some observers say that the battle between the two coalition partners will only become more apparent, with the government going for an all or nothing approach and general elections as a last resort. The one soubriquet that the Manmohan government will detest is being lame duck.
There are many indications to suggest that the government wants to stick to its guns on the Iran issue. On the other hand, like in the past, it might simply capitulate to the left again, to survive another day.
Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.