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In India, the Communists still matter

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-01-23

India's Communists said yesterday that they would organize massive nation-wide demonstrations and disruptions to protest against President Bush's three-day state visit in March.

The general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Prakash Karat, said that a "nationwide anti-imperialist day" will be observed tomorrow.

Mr. Karat's party, along with the older Communist Part of India, have reportedly forced Prime Minister Singh's fragile coalition government to cancel plans for Mr. Bush's address to a joint session of the 545-member Lok Sabha, the Lower House of Parliament, and the 245-member Rajya, the Upper House. Although the two Communist parties aren't part of the Singh government - which is led by Mr. Singh's Congress Party - their parliamentary support is critical to the survival of the ruling 14-party coalition, known as the United Progressive Alliance.

The anti-Bush campaign in India, a secular nation of 1.2 billion people and the world's largest democracy, comes at a time when the hard Left appears to be making gains in several developing countries, particularly in Latin America.

Yesterday, Evo Morales - a self-avowed Marxist - was sworn in as Bolivia's president. Mr. Morales supports the cultivation of coca, the plant that's the base for cocaine; he has also hailed the Communist dictatorship of Cuba's Fidel Castro as a model for Andean nations. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Uruguay and Venezuela all have leftist governments.

In Asia, Cambodia, China, Laos and Vietnam have either Communist regimes, or ones leaning to the Left. In Nepal, Maoist guerrillas are increasingly on the offensive against King Gyanendra. Yesterday, 17 guerrillas and 6 security officers were killed in a clash, according to a Nepali army spokesman.

The resurgence of the Left in these countries is being hailed by India's Communists as a sign that the Bush administration's pro-free-market and democratization policies do not resonate well among the mostly impoverished masses of the world's 135 third countries.

"This is a protest against the aggressive policies of America and against the scheduled visit of President Bush to India specifically," Mr. Karat, the Communist leader, said.

He repeated the Communists' vow to halt privatization of profit-making state-owned companies. The Communists also contend that employers do not have the right to fire workers, and they want to annul a Supreme Court order prohibiting strikes. They are also demanding that the Singh government increase import duties in order to protect domestic agricultural production.

Such demands are made mostly through the policy co-ordination panel in parliament that the Singh coalition has established. The Singh government, which has pushed for greater economic liberalization and has invited more foreign direct invest (FDI), particularly from America, is often hobbled on account of leftist demurrals.

Such political opposition, along with India's dilapidated infrastructure is widely seen as an impediment to a faster economic growth rate. While the country has average an annual growth rate of 7% over the last decade, economists in India and America generally believe that a growth of 8% to 10% is not beyond India's capability. India's major rival in Asia, China, consistently registers a growth rate of 10% to 11% a year.

All American presidents since Richard Nixon in 1971 have visited China, except for Jimmy Carter. Presidential visits to India date back even further - Dwight Eisenhower went to India in 1959, Nixon in 1969, and Carter in 1978. Bill Clinton spent five days in 2000.

Mr. Bush is scheduled to be in India from March 1 to March 3, although he will land on February 28. His state visit technically starts on March 1 because Prime Minister Singh is expected to present his annual budget to parliament on February 28.

During his visit to India, Mr. Bush and Mr. Singh are certain to discuss was to accelerate the economic collaboration between their countries. They will deal with trade - America is India's biggest trading partner - science and technology, agriculture, education, defense, and, of course, anti-terrorism.

They will also most certainly review the US-India civil nuclear energy cooperation agreement that Mr. Bush signed during Prime Minister Singh state visit to Washington in July 2005. The U.S. under secretary for political affairs, Nicholas Burns, has been in New Delhi to confer with Indian Shyam Saran about how to reinforce the agreement during the Bush visit.

Among other things, that agreement called for America and India to widen their strategic partnership, especially with regard to combating weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. Since last year, India has been supportive of the Bush administration's position that Iran, which aspires to be a nuclear power - as India already is - should open its technical facilities for inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency, a U.N. body.

An advance team from the White House is currently in the Indian capital of New Delhi to prepare for Mr. Bush's visit. Although his itinerary has yet to be announced, the president - who will be accompanied by First lady Laura Bush and a large delegation of American business leaders - is likely to visit the Taj Mahal in Agra, the 17th century mausoleum built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jehan in memory of his wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

Mr. Bush will reportedly also visit the southern city of Hyderabad to open a new consulate. India's computer and high-tech industries are concentrated in Hyderabad, and also in another southern city Bangalore. Many American technology companies have offices and plants in these cities.

The president is expected to make a stopover in neighboring Pakistan and Afghanistan as well. Both countries are Washington's allies in the campaign against global terrorism.

Also yesterday in India, the Communists joined forces with other left-wing parties in accusing the Coca-Cola Company of environmental damage and neglect of villagers' plight in communities where it has bottling plants.

They demanded that Coke must permanently shut down its huge bottling facilities in Mehdiganj (in India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh); Kala Dera (in the western state of Rajasthan); and Plachimada (in the southwestern state of Kerala).

The critics want Coke to compensate the affected community members.

They want Coke to recharge the depleted groundwater; clean up the contaminated water and soil; and ensure that workers laid off as a result of Coca-Cola's "negligence" are retrained and relocated in "a more sustainable industry."

And the anti-Coke campaign is demanding that Coke must admit liability for the long-term consequences of exposure to toxic waste and pesticide-laden beverages in India.

The campaign is certain to escalate during President Bush's trip.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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