Bemused ambassadors of countries that are part of the European Union confessed they heard an admission from a politician they would not get to hear back home. Prakash Karat, general secretary of the Communist Party of India - Marxist, the largest of the four Left parties in the outgoing Lok Sabha, cheerfully told a gathering of EU envoys earlier this month that he did not expect his party to do as well in 2009 as it had done in the 2004 general elections. He expected the tally of the Left, which had won 61 seats in 2004, to come down, leaving the post-election scenario open to many possibilities.
And although the nine-party Third Front has now more or less firmed itself as an alternative, Karat was not really confident of the performance of others in the Front either. He told the gathered ambassadors that he did not expect Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati, who is not part of the Third Front but could influence post-election alliances, to win seats in the numbers sufficient to propel her to claim prime ministership -- mainly because she was unlikely to get too many seats outside her base of Uttar Pradesh.
Karat was talking to envoys of countries that have investments in India worth billions of dollars, after exactly five years. He spent a large part of his talk on the reasons for the differences with the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance to which the Left parties extended support till last July.
It was not just the Indo-United States civil nuclear agreement that caused the breach, he told representatives of France and Germany, which have a lot riding on the deal. The Left parties began distancing themselves from the UPA when External Affiars Minister Pranab Mukherjee went to the US to sign a 10-year Defence Framework Agreement that put in place a regime of joint exercises to deepen interoperability (ironically the UPA government signed the defence agreement after extended negotiation -- and renegotiation -- with then US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld).
The envoys came away with the distinct impression that Karat's party, if it was in a position of power, would not roll back the nuclear deal but did concede that they sensed a shift in India's foreign policy with the West.
Many envoys knew Karat before he became party general secretary. "I found him much less dogmatic, much more flexible than before," said one.
What the envoys appreciated most extensively was the clarity in Karat's thinking. "Here's a man who knows what he wants. The same cannot be said of others in Indian politics," said one envoy.