NEW DELHI — Communist Party leaders say they are trying to keep U.S. influence at bay and protect India's poor from ruthless foreign enterprises by blocking a deal on nuclear energy with the United States.
Critics of the Communists put it a little differently, arguing that they are engaging in political obstructionism in hopes of developing closer ties with China — at the expense of the same rural underclass they claim to represent.
The Communists, with enough seats in Parliament to force an election at any time, have staunchly rejected the deal — which would allow India to buy U.S. nuclear energy technology without giving up its weapons program — ever since it was signed in July 2005 by President Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
They describe it as an affront to Indian sovereignty that gives the United States too much power over foreign-policy matters.
"To make India's foreign policy and strategic autonomy hostage to the potential of nuclear energy does not make sense," Communist Party of India (Marxist) General Secretary Prakash Karat has written, "except for the American imperative to bind India to its strategic designs in Asia."
Aside from a heavy-handed grip on power for the past 30 years in West Bengal state, the four Communist parties making up the left wing of Indian politics have remained at the fringe of national politics — until recently.
The landscape changed in 2004, when Mr. Singh's Congress Party defeated the incumbent Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party but failed to win enough seats to rule on their own.
The Communists agreed to join a 16-party coalition formed by Congress but refused to accept a Cabinet seat — a tactical decision that has given them the leverage to fold the government at any time.
The nuclear pact, viewed in Washington as the cornerstone of a new strategic relationship with India to counter China's global ascent, would provide India with "full civil nuclear cooperation."
This includes the assurance of nuclear technologies and reactor fuel for the energy-starved country in exchange for New Delhi's pledge to separate civilian and nuclear facilities and call a moratorium on nuclear testing.
Proponents in the ruling Congress Party and scientific community say it is a vital step away from decades of nonaligned politics, during which India was a byword for poverty and state inertia.
More important, the deal would help India to boost its output of electricity in order to sustain its breakneck economic growth — second only to China's over the past 15 years. Mr. Singh thinks the nuclear deal would boost India's nuclear power production from 3 percent to 10 percent of total energy production by 2020.
The Communists have offered no alternative plan to meet energy requirements, instead making known their plans to scale back commercial activity and undo reforms that have gradually integrated India into the global economy.
Some analysts think the Communists' real agenda is to move India away from the United States and closer to China, a theory that Mr. Karat has reinforced with recent remarks.
In October, he said the main problem with the nuclear deal is that it is part of a U.S. plan to "encircle" China. Last month, he praised China as "the most powerful socialist country capable of challenging the might of the United States."
Leftist obstructionism of the nuclear deal was recently undercut by a series of ugly events in West Bengal state, a longtime Communist Party stronghold, in which members of the rural underclass were victimized.
Communist leaders in the state had set up Special Economic Zones, inspired by the Chinese model, to attract business interests after heavily pro-labor policies stalled the economy, but farmers refused to vacate lands designated for the project.
In March, the state government sent armed thugs and police to attack protesters in the village of Nandigram, where a chemical complex was to be built, leaving 14 persons dead.
When protests resumed last month, a second wave of attacks was ordered in which six persons were killed and almost 5,000 were displaced. A wave of anger swept across the country when party leaders declared the violence was "morally and legally" justified.