Art of sinking

Published : Nov 16, 2007 00:00 IST

Prime Minister Manmohan Singhs task is in some ways similar to that of French Prime Minister Robert Schumans as he attempted to assuage the Left and the Gaullists in the shortage-ridden France of 1948. -

Prime Minister Manmohan Singhs task is in some ways similar to that of French Prime Minister Robert Schumans as he attempted to assuage the Left and the Gaullists in the shortage-ridden France of 1948. -

The Congress would do well to embrace the phrase that French Prime Minister Robert Schuman used 60 years ago to deflate the grand illusions of the French.

Prime Minister Manmohan

SOME 60 years ago Time magazine carried a perceptive story on the then Prime Minister of France Robert Schuman. It was during the chaotic Fourth Republic in France, when a popular, if apocryphal, story was that one of the most profitable jobs available was that of a photographer who took group pictures of the Council of Ministers.

Schuman had the unenviable job of persuading his countrymen to accept the economic hardships that followed the Second World War, the anger and depression of having suffered not only that war but the one before it. In the words used in the article, Schuman had to deflate the grand illusions, the bitterness, the suppressed (and sometimes open) hysteria, and indeed the sense of frustrated tragedy that France had acquired in the war years. Schuman used a phrase for this: le climat psychologique de la baisse, which Time translated, slightly ironically, as the art of sinking. From all the illusions and dreams up in the sky, to the reality on the ground.

Manmohan Singh would, in all likelihood, agree with the need to bring about the art of sinking; and he would sympathise with Schumans wry comment when he was asked whether he was happy as he emerged from a stormy session in the National Assembly: As usual, it seems they are giving me three weeks to find you a cheap steak.

Not because the problems Schuman faced are in any way similar to the ones Manmohan Singh faces. On the contrary, compared with the bleak, shortage-ridden France of 1948, India in 2007 is an economy that is buoyant and getting stronger. The similarity is in Schumans attempt to manage the myriad angry voices in the Assembly, trying to assuage the Left as well as the Gaullists. This does not seem too different from the task Manmohan Singh has.

Coalitions are, at the best of times, not easy to manage. The Left has done this with skill in West Bengal for over 30 years. Initially, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), though the dominant party, did not have an absolute majority on its own; but from 1982 it did.

Nonetheless, the Left Front, not the CPI(M), continued to form the government a measure of its skill in managing the junior partners in the coalition despite the odd internal heart-burning over some issue or the other. The difference between the Left Front in Bengal and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in New Delhi supported by the Left is that the former has a strong common ideological base; the latter has exactly the opposite. True, there is the Common Minimum Programme, but while the document has been drafted and agreed upon, the ideological postures of the two are poles apart.

India may have a roaring capitalist economy, to quote Somini Sengupta of The New York Times, but that seems to be something that the Left either tolerates or dismisses.

It is something else, something that is perceived as making India subservient to the United States of America: the agreement drawn up, but not signed, between the two countries on the supply of nuclear fuel for existing reactors and for those to be built, to meet a part of Indias energy needs.

One particular factor makes this more incomprehensible than it may otherwise have been. At least in West Bengal the Left Front is desperate to secure greater investment from, among others, the U.S. Besides, Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, once considered a formidable ideologue in the CPI(M), has made statements that nuclear power is necessary and India has to get it. Is the Left Front talking in two voices? It would seem so, but the truth may lie somewhere between that and the UPAs failure to get the Left to at least temper its statements on the nuclear agreement. One gets the feeling that somewhere the Left has not been kept in the loop; it is not so much a question of what the Congress thinks about it but what the Left and the other UPA allies think.

Whatever the perception on either side, the fact is that there is a failure in communication and this is a serious matter for the country. Not because of the India-U.S. agreement, at least not only because of that. The real worry is that it highlights the emergence of widening differences between the UPA and the Left, something that the recent meetings between the Left and Samajwadi Party leaders also point to. It looks as though the Congress feels it can manage by itself, that suddenly the people of India are going to rally behind it and bring it to power whenever an election is held.

That is something only time will tell; for the moment it is imperative that the government be given a degree of stability; which, in simple terms, means that the Congress, as the party leading the ruling coalition, must not just concede on the nuclear agreement, which it seems to have done with bad grace, but also restart a close dialogue with the Left and fashion policies that suit a coalition government, forgetting any grand illusions it may have of ruling India on its own. The Congress must, to quote Schuman, as paraphrased by Time, accept the art of sinking.

This is, after all, a government for the present. It will not last forever; indeed, it may not even last its full term. But until events take the country to an election, it is necessary for the ruling coalition to learn the skills of running a coalition government, and give up the old, rather imperial postures that characterised Congress governments of the past. It means patience and forbearance and a willingness to adapt policies and practices. It means refusing firmly to listen to the demagogues who urge them not to take anymore, to give it back to them and tell them where to get off.

Mao Zedong advocated compromise and coalition politics when it was necessary. As far back as in 1945, in a speech to the seventh Party Congress, he said: Some people fail to understand why, so far from fearing capitalism, Communists should advocate its development in certain given conditions. Our answer is simple. The substitution of a certain degree of capitalist development for the oppression of foreign imperialism and domestic feudalism is not only an advance, but an unavoidable process(emphasis added).

If Mao could see that practical considerations are prime in some situations, both the UPA and the Left ought to see that too and re-establish communications that are more than just meetings where each side makes a prepared statement and leaves. There are those in the UPA who are wise in the ways of coalition politics; it is time they made their case more urgently for the sake of stability and in the interests of the country.

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