Red in the face

The Indian Express
July 25, 2005

Marxist theory devotes whole chapters to the idea of contradiction. It appears apt then that the first serious crisis Prakash Karat has to tackle as CPI(M) general secretary is in the nature of a monumental political contradiction: Kerala’s SNC-Lavalin power scandal. In Karat’s home state, a CAG report has indicted a CPI(M)-led government of the mid-1990s for a Rs 374.50 crore loss to the exchequer. The methodology was simple enough, and charmingly similar to that of “bourgeois” governments. Three hydel power stations had to be upgraded, tenders were invited and it boiled down to an Indian consortium and a Canadian MNC. The foreign company quoted Rs 2.42 crore per MW, the Indian consortium – BHEL and L&T – sought Rs 1.25 per MW. The contract went to the higher bidder. The contradiction doesn’t end here; it only intensifies. BHEL, the public-sector company so deprived by a Left government, is today the object of the CPI(M)’s affection. The party refuses to let the Centre sell even 10 per cent of its stake in BHEL for fear this would threaten national and worker interests. SNC-Lavalin, as it turns out, is also a defence equipment supplier, with a client list that includes the American and NATO militaries.

The UPA government has just announced a CBI inquiry into the privatisation of Mumbai’s Centaur Hotel. Consider what happened in the Centaur deal: it was sold by the NDA government to a buyer who re-sold the property and made a profit. The government lost no money; at best, its financial advisors could be accused of conservative valuation. Yet the CPI(M) and CPI, taking recourse to an ambiguous CAG report, alleged corruption. Now take the primary evidence in the SNC-Lavalin scandal. Even if the Canadian technology was better, was it worth almost double the price? If BHEL’s technology is not world class – and fit to be rejected by the Kerala government – is it really the public-owned crown jewel the CPI(M) now insists it is? If ever a deal deserved a CBI probe, a slew of FIRs, arrests, it is this one.

The SNC-Lavalin episode is also a reassuring reminder that the CPI(M) is not the irredeemable monolith it appears. The truth has been facilitated by factionalism, with pro-MNC communists being “outed” by internal rivals. Comrade Karat’s party can now back its whistleblowers, and call for a CBI probe. Alternatively, the party can bury itself in a deeper study of the theory of contradiction. The choice is CPI(M)’s; so is the opprobrium.

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