Playing with fire

The dangers are all too apparent if Maoists are encouraged to believe they can further their agenda through selective deals with mainstream parties
T N Ninan / New Delhi January 30, 2010, 1:21 IST

One of the strengths of the Indian system is its ability to co-opt rebellious and separatist forces and bring them into the political mainstream. The Communists were persuaded to take part in the parliamentary system of democracy, and the separatist forces in Tamil Nadu and Mizoram became the mainstream.

The system is large and accommodative enough to make room for all comers — and more would come into the mainstream if it were not for the instigation and support that Pakistan and China provide for the recalcitrant elements.

That said, a strange thing is happening when it comes to the Maoists, because the shoe seems to be on the other foot. In at least two states, it is the Maoists who have used the mainstream parties for their own ends, with the latter willing to play along in the hope of grabbing power.

The latest example is Shibu Soren, who as the newly-elected chief minister of Jharkhand wants to go soft on the Maoists and has, in fact, called off police action soon after assuming office.

Whether he has changed course after his meeting a couple of days ago with the home minister remains to be seen, but it is hard to ignore the possibility that Mr Soren is delivering in return for the support that he got from the Maoists during the recent elections to the state assembly.

In neighbouring West Bengal, the Marxists continually beat the drum about Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress being in league with the Maoists in the state, the common objective being to unseat the Left Front when state elections come round next year.

It is also an open secret that, six years ago, the Andhra Pradesh Congress under YS Rajasekhar Reddy got support from the Maoists during the state elections, support that helped unseat the Telugu Desam. Like Mr Soren today, Mr Reddy at the time began with a soft approach to the Maoists, and got tough only after a year or two had passed.

The question that bears asking is whether the Maoists have got so much purchase in select pockets of the country that they are now able to influence the outcome of state elections, and thereby determine who will become the chief minister.

If they have twice tried the gambit and if it worked on both occasions, in that they won a reprieve from police action that helped them to catch their breath and re-group, they will naturally conclude that the gambit is worth trying again.

With West Bengal elections not far away, it is important to ask who uses whom when the Maoists form links with mainstream parties.

The stand-out example of how things can go wrong is provided by Punjab in the 1980s. It was initially the Congress that tried to upstage the Akali Dal by setting up Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.

Later, Akali politicians developed links with the militants and saw them as a useful ally for specific objectives — and there too, it was not clear who was using whom.

What the country remembers is that Punjab came to the brink, and peace returned only after a heavy price had been paid, in terms of bloodshed and violence, including Operation Bluestar and the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

Because the Maoists speak in the name of the poor, they tend to attract some degree of sympathy and so a political party doing a quick-and-dirty deal with them tends to be seen as less than heinous.

But the dangers are all too apparent if the Maoists are encouraged to believe that they can further their agenda through selective deals with mainstream parties.