Nuclear standoff

Print edition : September 07, 2007


The fate of the Union government hangs in the balance as the ruling UPA and the Left parties differ strongly on the India-U.S. nuclear deal.

BY any yardstick, the month of September 2007 is going to be the most crucial period in the nearly three-and-a-half-year-old tenure of the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre. For the first time since its inception in May 2004, the government is facing a tangible threat to its existence. Developments in September, both inside the country and outside, will decide whether this threat will pass off or become a reality.

The present situation is qualitatively different from the crises that the UPA government faced earlier on account of differences within the alliance or with the Left parties, on whose outside support it depends for its survival. For, the divergence of opinion the government has with the Left parties this time around involves specific, time-bound issues, which are etched in black and white, with no shades of grey. It has also brought out two diametrically opposite perspectives, especially in terms of foreign policy, represented by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on one side and the Left parties on the other. The Prime Minister has made it clear that he will not budge from the governments stated position and, consequently, the warning given by the Left parties to the government has also been unambiguously categorical.

Central to the crisis is the bilateral agreement on nuclear cooperation that the UPA government has firmed up with the United States. Many leaders in the government, especially Manmohan Singh, are of the view that this deal will go a long way in addressing the energy concerns of the country and open new vistas of development to India. Making a statement in Parliament on August 13, Manmohan Singh maintained that this agreement with the United States will open new doors in capitals across the world. It is another step in our journey to regain our due place in global councils. When future generations look back, they will come to acknowledge the significance of this historic deal. He went on to add a couple of days later that no government can afford to shirk the responsibility of ensuring energy security and hope to find favour with the people.

The Prime Ministers view, however, is not shared by most political forces in the country. The principal Opposition party in Parliament, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is of the view that the deal compromises Indias strategic autonomy, though two constituents of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the Trinamul Congress and the Shiv Sena, have found merit in the deal. The Opposition formation of eight regional parties, the United National Progressive Alliance (UNPA), has termed it a slave treaty. The Left parties, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), on the other hand, have evaluated that the deal compromises Indias independent foreign policy and its sovereign rights for developing a self-reliant nuclear programme.


These parties have also pointed out that the agreement is a crucial step to lock in India into the U.S. global strategic designs. This assessment is primarily dependent on the provisions of the Hyde Act of the U.S., which was passed in December 2006 (see separate story).

When the Left parties first came up with their opinion on August 7, the Prime Ministers response was uncharacteristically sharp. In an interview to a Kolkata-based newspaper, he maintained that the deal was final and if the Left parties wanted to withdraw support to the government on this issue, so be it. This atypical statement of the Prime Ministers has been hailed or railed at by different sections of the polity and the intelligentsia, including different segments of the UPA, including the Congress. Whatever the statements merits and demerits, there can be little doubt that it failed to take into account the countrys political realities, especially the dynamics of the ruling dispensation.

At the political level, the UPA and its government can afford to ignore the views of the BJP and other constituents of the NDA, such as the Janata Dal (United). It can also dismiss the opinion of the UNPA as politically inconsequential. However, it cannot accord the same treatment to the views of the Left parties, principally because the UPA government is dependent on their support. This naturally bestows tremendous value to the demand made by the Left parties on the basis of their evaluation of the nuclear deal and becomes a crucial factor that would decide the fate of the UPA government. But the context of the Prime Ministers so be it statement heightened the value of the Lefts demands and imparted a sensational dimension to the political atmosphere. The demand involved the categorical assertion that the government should ensure that the nuclear deal is not operationalised and no next step is taken to advance it.

In practical terms, the next steps to advance the deal are expected to be set rolling at the 51st Annual General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that is to be held in Vienna between September 17 and 21. Indias Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Anil Kakodkar is expected to attend the meeting. If Manmohan Singh has his way, he would want the AEC chief to use this opportunity to negotiate and finalise with the IAEA the safeguards agreement for the deal. The Left parties demand that there be no next steps means that they want no discussions at the IAEA meet on the safeguards agreement. They have made it clear that the UPA government will face serious consequences if the AEC chief goes ahead with the consultations on that front. The term serious consequences is widely perceived to be a euphemism for withdrawal of support, and signals from the Left leadership do confirm this perception.

The Central Committee of the CPI(M), which as per the party constitution is the highest authority of the party between two all-India party congresses, met in Delhi on August 22 and 23 and passed a unanimous resolution authorising the Polit Bureau, the operational high command of the party, to take whatever necessary measures to see that the agreement is not operationalised. In other words, the Polit Bureau has been accorded the right to move decisively against the UPA government, if it takes any step to operationalise the India-U.S. nuclear deal. According to senior leaders of the CPI(M), the deliberations at the Central Committee pointed out that with almost all the non-UPA parties opposing the deal, the majority opinion in Parliament was against it. The Central Committee also noted that it is a fact that the majority of the Members of Parliament are opposed to the agreement. It further said that it does not want the current crisis to affect the government, but also added this is contingent upon the government not proceeding further with the agreement.

Clearly, the message from the Left parties was that the UPA leadership can either save the government or save the nuclear deal. Prakash Karat, CPI(M) general secretary, touched upon this aspect when he pointed out to Frontline that the issues thrown up by the deal were essentially political and hence he was waiting for a response from the Congress leadership, thereby making a differentiation between the leadership of the government under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and that of the Congress under party president Sonia Gandhi. Karat also added that the CPI(M) and other Left parties were prepared to consider any mechanism or committee to examine all the problems connected with this agreement, provided the government does not proceed with the next step.

The response from the leadership of the Congress as well as other constituents of the UPA in the immediate aftermath of the CPI(M) Central Committee statement was mixed. It presented three different shades of opinion: the hope that both the government and the deal can be saved, the view that the Prime Minister should respect the opinion of the majority in Parliament and go slow on the deal, and the assertion that the Prime Ministers stature should not be compromised under any circumstances. All India Congress Committee (AICC) general secretary Janardhan Dwivedi said that the party hoped that some understanding will be reached keeping in view the national interest.

At the same time, sources close to the Prime Minister pointed out that any further dithering in the name of setting up inspection or examination committees or any other evaluation mechanism would sound the death knell for the deal. Their view was that the deal should be treated as non-negotiable and the prestige and honour of the Prime Minister should not be compromised.

COMMUNIST PARTY OF India (Marxist-Leninist) activists demonstrating against the nuclear deal, near Parliament House on August 14.-RAVEENDRAN/AFP

Leaders of UPA constituents such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) were also similarly divided, in a nuanced manner. A number of Members of Parliament belonging to the DMK, the primary South Indian ally of the Congress, told Frontline that its leadership had asked the Congress why the Prime Minister was worried about prestige on a deal with the U.S., when his government had failed to pursue vigorously issues of importance to the people, such as reservation for Other Backward Classes (OBC) and Scheduled Castes. At the same time, the DMK leadership has also apparently pointed out to the Left leadership that the communal BJP and its allies would make gains if the UPA government was rocked at this point of time.

According to a number of RJD MPs, the party leadership, including Union Railway Minister and party president Lalu Prasad, has pointed out to the Congress that it cannot afford to snap its ties with the Left parties at this point of time, especially because it would have to ally with these parties again to keep the BJP out. Over and above all this, none of the UPA partners is in favour of facing midterm polls, which are a certainty if the Left parties withdraw support to the government.

The situation within the UPA at the time of writing (the last week of August) is such that none of these views has attained a dominating position. Sonia Gandhi, who is also the UPA chairperson, is apparently analysing the various options before the party and is yet to put her weight behind any particular view. Even so, the supporters of Manmohan Singh are of the view that the government and the UPA have gone far ahead with the nuclear deal and cannot make even a semblance of a turnaround at this point of time.

According to political analyst T.K. Ramachandran, this view of the Prime Ministers supporters should naturally get ascendancy within the UPA, especially given the combines track record on various international issues. It is like the proverbial leopard not being able to change its spots. The tilt towards the U.S. and its political and strategic interests has grown consistently during the UPA regime and the Left intervention at this point of time is aimed at halting that tilt. The Left objective can be achieved only if the political leadership of the UPA takes decisive and dramatic measures, but at the moment there are no signs of any UPA leader, including Sonia Gandhi, taking recourse to such measures, he said.

FOREIGN SECRETARY SHIV Shanker Menon (left) and Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Anil Kakodkar leaving Parliament House after the Prime Minister's address on the nuclear deal in the Lok Sabha on August 13.-SUBHAV SHUKLA/PTI

A senior RJD leader, who agreed with this view, pointed out that under Manmohan Singhs leadership, the Congress bridges to the Left perspective on foreign policy has been demolished bit by bit. The ouster of K. Natwar Singh from the Ministry of External Affairs, and later from the Congress itself, as well as the sidelining of former Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar clearly point towards this. The RJD leader added that the absence of leaders like Natwar Singh and Mani Shankar Aiyar on the foreign policy scene has even made a dialogue between the Left and the Congress a difficult proposition. In this situation, it is natural to surmise that the Manmohan Singh line will ultimately prevail in the Congress, and consequently the UPA. A sizable number of Congress leaders and MPs agree with this view.

The promise held out by such perspectives is obviously a collapse of the UPA government, followed by midterm polls. Sections of the Left parties, particularly a chunk of the CPI(M) leadership, had also expressed their reservations about midterm polls. This section, which apparently had the backing of West Bengal Chief Minister Buddadeb Bhattacharjee, is reported to have advanced arguments in favour of a rapprochement with the UPA on the deal but gave in to the majority view in the Central Committee.

In the context of these developments, the discussion in the capitals political circles has veered round to issues relating to midterm elections and the preparedness of various parties for them. The general view is that none of the parties is ready at this point. Sections of the Congress, however, are hopeful that the party can even pick up new allies, such as the Trinamul Congress, in the run-up to midterm polls and even win back estranged allies such as the Telengana Rashtra Samiti. The argument in support of this view goes as follows. Even if the Left parties withdraw support, they would not want to be seen as supporting a no-confidence motion moved by the BJP or the UNPA. In such a context, the minority government can advance some election-friendly measures.

How far these projections will materialise is, at present, firmly in the realm of conjecture. But one thing is clear. The clash of perspectives on foreign policy or related issues is at a critical stage. The dimensions of the political tussle are such that they might even lead to the first-ever collapse of a government in India on a matter of foreign policy.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor