Final plunge

Published : Aug 01, 2008 00:00 IST

The Manmohan Singh government goes ahead with the nuclear deal and is, in the process, forced to seek a vote of confidence.

in New Delhi

THE dice has been set rolling and until it settles down one cannot be sure of the winner, particularly because it is spinning with too many twists and turns. All the same, we do hope to emerge on top at the end of it all. This was how a senior Congress leader from South India described the political situation in the run-up to the vote of confidence that the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was to face in Parliament on July 22.

The leader, with a penchant for the figurative, was talking to Frontline immediately after Congress president and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi addressed a meeting of the top leaders of the ruling coalition on July 11. At the meeting, Sonia Gandhi made a direct reference to the vote of confidence and the situation that compelled the government to seek it. Her comments pointed out how the UPA failed to carry the Left parties along on the India-U.S. civilian nuclear deal, leading to the withdrawal of Left support to the government.

While we regret their withdrawal of support, it is now time to look ahead, Sonia Gandhi said. She elucidated on what she meant by looking ahead: A special session of the Lok Sabha will be convened soon to enable us to seek a vote of confidence. I have no doubt that we shall prove our majority.

Sonia Gandhis expression of confidence must have boosted the morale within the UPA, but many leaders, such as the south Indian Congress leader, felt that a lot more would have to be done before that confidence can be converted into reality. And it was this perception that the Congress leader chose to delineate in allegorical terms.

The reasons for this guarded approach were not far to seek. The UPA meeting of July 11 itself reflected some of the spinning and the too many twists and turns that the leader referred to.

The meeting took place in the backdrop of an admission made by E. Ahmed, Minister of State for External Affairs and leader of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), a long-time partner of the Congress in Kerala, that large sections of the Muslim community were opposed to the nuclear deal.

The concern over Ahmeds pointer was accentuated because he wanted to quit the Ministry in order to mollify the anti-nuclear deal feelings among members of his community. Ahmed did assert that his resignation did not mean that the IUML was walking out of the UPA with the only Lok Sabha member it has, but all the same his predicament did generate some concern in the UPA about the minority communitys perception of the deal.

Another type of anxiety over yet another smaller UPA partner, the Jharkhand Mukthi Morcha (JMM), also manifested itself in the run-up to the meeting. This anxiety was generated over reports that the JMM was upset with the Congress for not taking its leader Shibu Soren into the Cabinet after he was cleared of criminal charges in a murder case. These reports came with the added information that the JMM with five Lok Sabha members had initiated talks with the principal opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), on a proposal that visualised Sorens elevation as Chief Minister of Jharkhand with BJP support. The concern over these reports was put to rest (perhaps temporarily) by the presence of JMM MP Hemlal Murmu at the July 11 meeting.

According to the Congress leader and some of his colleagues among the smaller parties in the UPA, the critical issues generated by the endgame on the nuclear deal were essentially twofold. First, was the problem of numbers in Parliament caused by the withdrawal of support by the 62 members belonging to the four Left parties, namely the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and the Forward Bloc.

The second related to the larger public perception about the deal and the way the Congress and the UPA had gone about it.

As things stood on July 11, approximately 10 days before the trust vote, the Congress leader and his colleagues agreed, the Congress and its UPA partners were not on sure ground. The number of Lok Sabha members supporting the government before the Left pull-out was 292 out of a total of 543. With the Lefts withdrawal, the figure came down to 230. In this context, the backing of the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), led by former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav, came as a life-support system for the Manmohan Singh government. Following the S.P.s announcement, the government had, on paper, the support of 269 members, three short of a simple majority. The Congress hoped to rope in the remaining members from smaller parties such as the Janata Dal (Secular) and the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS). But these calculations did not fall clearly in place on account of the turning and rolling of the political dice.

The primary factor that threw a spanner in the works was the revolt in the S.P., which claimed the support of 39 members in the Lok Sabha, on the nuclear deal issue. Two members Munawar Hussain and Jai Prakash Rawat stated on July 8 the day the S.P. leadership formally announced support to the UPA government that they would not go along with the decision to support the deal as well as the Manmohan Singh government.

The whispering campaign within the party had it that some dozen Lok Sabha members were upset with the line of the leadership and were ready to part ways. Many of them were apparently in touch with the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the ruling party in Uttar Pradesh. The fact that 10 Members of Parliament failed to participate in the July 8 parliamentary party meeting of the S.P. added grist to the political mill.

The concern caused by the developments within the S.P. was aggravated by the vacillation of parties such as the RLD, the JD(S), the TRS and the National Conference in promising support to the UPA. In the run-up to the trust vote they donned different roles each day.

By all indications, many of these parties were only putting up their price even though their claim was that they were being pulled in different directions by the pro-deal and anti-deal sections of their support bases. This meant that every day the leadership of the Congress and the UPA had to device new ways to manage existing and potential allies.

If this was the situation in the numbers game, the execution of political and administrative measures to take the nuclear deal forward was even more appalling.

The governments track record in this contradicted its own stated positions. In the process, its dealings were without any kind of transparency and this created the impression that the government had a lot to hide vis a vis the deal.

This process started with the dissonance in the statements of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and External Affairs Minister Pranab Kumar Mukherjee on July 7. On that day, Mukherjee sent a letter to the Left parties inviting them to a meeting of the UPA-Left committee in order to discuss future steps on the nuclear deal.

Even as the Left mulled its response, Manmohan Singh told a group of journalists accompanying him to the G8 summit in Japan that the government had decided to approach the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with the text of the India-specific safeguards agreement on the nuclear deal. This statement made Mukherjees invitation look ridiculous and this was the immediate trigger for the Left parties to withdraw support. The contradictions did not stop with this. On the morning of July 8, Mukherjee announced at a press conference that the government would send Indias safeguards agreement to the IAEA Board only after the trust vote in Parliament. He said: I cannot bind the government if we lose our majority. He said he had consulted the Prime Minister, who was in Japan, in this regard.

However, on the night of July 8, within hours of that statement, the government moved the IAEA Board with the request that the India-specific safeguards agreement be circulated among its members. This action was condemned widely as an act of deceit by the Left parties and a number of parties in the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA), including the BJP and the Janata Dal (United).

It was pointed out by all these parties that Mukherjee had stated at the July 8 press conference that the norm was that a government that had lost its majority would not have the moral authority to bind the country to an international agreement.

Many political commentators observed that the government had gone back on Mukherjees solemn assurance essentially on account of something that had transpired between Manmohan Singh and President George Bush when they met on the sidelines of the G8 summit. The IAEA Board was moved within hours of this high-level meeting.

The CPI(M) pointedly referred to this and asked what happened at the July 9 meeting that led to a going-back on a public pledge. Many commentators were of the view that the UPA responded to a concern of the Bush administration about the time factor. The Bush administration had indicated time and again that it needed enough time to complete the American legislative process connected with the deal.

Clearly, the haste shown by the government once again emphasised the charge of CPI (M) general secretary Prakash Karat that the Manmohan Singh government was more keen on fulfilling a commitment given to President Bush than looking after the interests of the Indian people.

Commenting on the sequence of events relating to the deal as well as the larger political climate in which the moves were unfolding, BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani said in an interview to N. Ram, Editor-in-chief of The Hindu group of publications, that the nuclear deal had been dragging on in a manner as to make even the common man feel that the government was not concerned with anything else.

The governments dubious record in relation to the recent developments on the nuclear deal did not end with this. Throughout this period it claimed that the text of the draft safeguards agreement was a privileged and confidential document. The government had stated in the UPA-Left committee that there was no way it could share the text. But the governments claims were exposed as false when the IAEA itself released the text for public view.

All this, undoubtedly, had an impact on the numbers game too. Many of the smaller parties, which were otherwise inclined to support the UPA, got the feeling that the government was trying to hide something. Parties that were affected by this apprehension included the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) and the JD(S).

The challenge for the Congress and the UPA now is to overcome these doubts and for the S.P. it is to set its house in order. If the UPA and the S.P. succeed in doing this, the political dice could well settle in the UPAs favour. But by all indications any settlement would be preceded by an intensification of the current spinning, twisting and turning.

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