Communists Red-Faced in India Power-Play

April 28, 1999 - 0:0
NEW DELHI India's communists have lost face by casting themselves as king-makers in last week's failed attempt to put together an alternative to the collapsed coalition government, analysts said on Monday. "Their leverage and ability to act as a binding force has been very seriously eroded," said Mahesh Rangarajan, a political analyst soon after President K.R. Narayanan ordered fresh elections. The communists led the battle to install the main opposition Congress Party in power under its Italian-born head Donia Gandhi, but the party was unable to cobble together a majority in the fragmented Lower House of Parliament, and rejected other arrangements.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) displayed its clout in federal politics in 1996, when it linked up with regional groups to form a center-left united front government. This week the party's secretary general Harkishan Singh Surjeet again emerged as a key player in attempts to patch up an alternative coalition after Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's government lost a confidence vote in Parliament. But dissensions from smaller left parties and a Caste-based group, along with Congress' refusal to support any other formation torpedoed Surjeet's moves, earning his displeasure.

The communists are pitted against Congress in regional politics, but favored a Congress regime in New Delhi because they consider the centrist party a lesser evil than Vajpayee's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. "I'm sure their state units must be cringing when the party took such a stridently pro-Congress position. They have called Congress class enemy number one," Kumar said. "The communists really look quite foolish," said Rabindra Kumar, managing editor of the statesman newspaper.

A number of regional left-leaning parties also refused to support a Congress-led coalition. "This, along with the stand taken by two of the left parties... ensured that no alternative government led by (Congress) could be formed. The BJP and the communal forces have benefitted from this sectarian stance," the Communist Party of India (Marxist) said. The left parties themselves rejected initial moves to form a government led by 84-year old party leader Jyoti Basu, whose left front government has ruled west Bengal since 1977. Several regional parties including the Samajwadi Party had favored Basu's candidature for prime ministership, but the communists stuck to their stand of backing Sonia Gandhi's party, and the president ordered fresh elections.

The communists were unfazed by the setback. "Left parties have got many jolts and have moved ahead. They are not selfish, they don't desire to immediately come to power. This merit also people recognize," Surjeet told Reuters. Surjeet rejected comments that the party had lost out. "I will not say yet what is the loss. You will see in the coming days what happens," Surjeet said.

The relationship with the Congress Party which kicked off India's sweeping economic reforms is likely to be discussed by the party's Central Committee when it meets next month to finalize its strategy for general elections. (Reuter)