Tactical moves

Print edition : November 16, 2007

There is intense diplomatic pressure from the U.S. to make the UPA government reverse its climbdown on the nuclear deal.

TOO much thinking does not produce clarity but only confusion. Our contemplative Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, seems to be thinking so much and so hard about the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal that he and his government have become the epitome of confusion. This was how Mulayam Singh Yadav, Samajwadi Party (S.P.) president, described the actions of the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government on the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, during a discussion with a group of senior party activists at the S.P. conclave held in Meerut in the first week of November. The former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh went on to remind his listeners about his stint as Defence Minister and emphasised that when confusion became the hallmark of leaderships, governments lost direction and their prestige fell among the national and international political class.

Mulayam Singh was obviously referring to the blow hot, blow cold approach adopted by the UPA government in the course of its many manoeuvres on the deal in October. The Prime Minister, and also UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, signalled a climbdown by the government on the deal on October 12, while attending a leadership summit in New Delhi. Three days later, on October 15, during a visit to Nigeria as part of a trip to African countries, the Prime Minister received a phone call from President George W. Bush. In the course of the conversation, Manmohan Singh reportedly told Bush that there were certain difficulties in operationalising the civilian nuclear deal. Although the Prime Ministers spokesperson did not elaborate on the difficulties, it was clear that the reference was to the strong opposition of the Left parties to the deal as also the stance of UPA constituents such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which saw the continuance of the government as more important than the deal. In political terms, the Prime Ministers explanation was in conformity with the October 12 climbdown.

However, addressing a press conference in Pretoria, South Africa, on October 17, Manmohan Singh indicated that the UPA government had not put the nuclear deal in cold storage. He stated: The process of evolving a meaningful consensus back home is still on. On October 18, on returning from his Africa tour, he advanced the theme further by pointing out that all the UPA partners including those who had put the continuance of the government above the deal were part and parcel of the Cabinet decision that cleared the 123 agreement with the United States on civilian nuclear cooperation.

Talking to mediapersons on board the Prime Ministers aircraft, Manmohan Singh asserted that the Political Affairs Committee of the Cabinet, which has representatives of all major political parties in the UPA, had approved the 123 agreement. This agreement was approved by the Cabinet. So I dont know what you say about the UPA going back on it. They were part and parcel of the Cabinet process. The statement was obviously a rejoinder to DMK leader and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, who had maintained that he had doubts about the nuclear deal even before the Left parties raised their objections.

Clearly, the Prime Minister had gathered enough strength during the African trip to take on other UPA constituents and push forth his own agenda on the nuclear deal. As a senior Union Minister pointed out, Manmohan Singh had come out of the climbdown mode pretty fast and was once again blowing hot about the deal. This change of tack was not entirely unexpected. Even when the Prime Minister made the climbdown in October, there were sections within the Congress as well as in the administrative hierarchy that wanted him to treat this only as a tactical retreat. Their position was that the Prime Minister could not entirely give up on the deal because in a wider sense its implications were supplementary to the policies of economic liberalisation being advanced by Manmohan Singh. These sections also argued that the Prime Minister should push the nuclear deal and the policies of economic liberalisation after a brief respite.

The question that was being debated within the Congress at that time was about the duration of the tactical respite. When he made the climbdown, Manmohan Singh said he wished the UPA government would last its full term, that is, up to May 2009. Sections of the Congress and the UPA believed that for this to happen, the Prime Minister would have to make the tactical retreat last at least a year. But the events that took place during his African trip and those that happened after that indicate that Manmohan Singh and his close associates are no longer functioning on this premise.

There is considerable debate in the political, diplomatic and administrative circles in the capital that the time frame of the tactical retreat has lessened dramatically after Manmohan Singh took George Bushs telephone call in Nigeria. The real impact of the call may be established only when the contents of the conversation are made known, but there is little doubt that since the Prime Ministers return there has been a flurry of American activity in India. This manifested itself in the visits of U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and World Bank President Robert Zoellick. The telephonic conversation that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had with External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee was another manifestation. Obviously, the nuclear deal was a matter of focus in the deliberations that Paulson and Kissinger had in India; the telephonic conversation between Rice and Mukherjee was entirely centred on the nuclear deal.

Paulson, who met the Prime Minister in New Delhi, also visited Kolkata and met West Bengal Chief Minister Buddadeb Bhattacharjee, who is a member of the Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). After the meeting with Bhattacharjee, Paulson announced that he had discussed the nuclear deal with the Chief Minister. He urged India to proceed with the civilian nuclear deal and take a leadership role in stalled global trade talks by opening up its economy. He added that the U.S. respected Indias democratic process and hoped that India would soon take a decision to implement the agreement.

As Paulson tried to generate support for the deal among Left leaders, Kissinger met L.K. Advani, the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Kissinger maintained that he had no brief to push the nuclear deal but said that a delay in operationalising the deal could impact the prospects of such cooperation. He added: If the agreement is not completed during the tenure of the Bush administration, the new administration in 2009 will negotiate a new agreement and submit it for Congresss approval and the same steps would repeat. This delay, Kissinger opined, would give greater time for the opponents of the deal to get organised. The messages that emanated from Paulson and Kissinger were more categorically stated by Condoleezza Rice in her conversation with Pranab Mukherjee. According to U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, Rice conveyed to Mukherjee that the U.S. was keen on moving ahead with the deal but that there would be no renegotiation on any aspect of it.

In the context of all these developments, a retired diplomat told Frontline that beyond the public pronouncements of the U.S. leaders, there were sufficient indications in diplomatic channels that India was being put through the strongest U.S. pressure ever since Independence. He said that it was not merely the government machinery that was being put through pressure but also political parties, such as the BJP.

Significantly, at a time when the visiting U.S. dignitaries were in India, BJP president Rajnath Singh expressed readiness for talks with the government on the deal. A few days before Rajnath Singh made this statement, Brajesh Mishra, who was National Security Adviser in the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government, said that he felt the nuclear deal could go ahead if Indias strategic weapons programme was safe and intact. Sources in the BJP were of the opinion that the demand for renegotiating the deal was no longer the dominant view in the party. All that the leadership wanted was an assurance about retaining Indias credible nuclear deterrence. The sources were of the view that despite its public opposition to the deal, the BJP would seek ways and means to let the deal go through.

But these sources also agreed that planning concrete manoeuvres to let this happen might not be easy: the Left parties have been demanding that the opinion of Parliament be taken before operationalising the deal, and even a walkout by the BJP would be perceived as opposition to the deal. There is no way we can openly support the deal after taking the political position we have taken, said an Uttar Pradesh-based BJP leader to Frontline. He pointed out that Advanis proposition that the government was not constitutionally bound to accept the opinion of the House on the deal was another way of suggesting a way out for both the government and the BJP.

Given this situation, Manmohan Singh and his associates can push through the deal only if they decide to overlook the concerns of the Congress UPA partners about a midterm poll. In spite of all the efforts, there has been no change in the stance of the Left parties that they will withdraw support to the UPA government if it decides to take even a single step to operationalise the deal. Will the Congress as a party back Manmohan Singh and his associates to fulfil its commitment to the deal and push the UPA and the country to midterm polls? The direction taken by the Prime Minister during and after the trip to Africa points in this direction, but there are no signals of an endorsement of this line from the political machinery of the Congress. By all indications, a few dates in the second and third week of November will decide what course the Congress, the UPA and the country will take.

The most important date would, of course, be November 16, when the coordination panel of the Left parties and the UPA are scheduled to discuss the issue. Significantly, the Congress has convened a one-day meeting of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) plenary on November 17. If talks at the coordination panel collapse, the AICC could well witness a clarion call for midterm polls. In any case, the plenary would be used as a venue to launch Rahul Gandhi, son of Sonia Gandhi and the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, as a national leader. Rahul Gandhi has been recently elevated as the national general secretary of the Congress. A meeting of the BJP core committee and office-bearers is also expected during this period.

The big question is whether the two meetings involving the Congress will have a midterm poll component. The Left parties maintain that they have not received any clear indication as to what direction the Congress will take in the days to come. The CPI(M), the leader of the Left group, is holding its Polit Bureau meeting on November 11 and 12. One may see a reiteration of the partys stated opposition to the nuclear deal at that meeting.

According to D. Raja, leader of the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Congress need not expect a compromise from the Left; it is for the Congress to decide whether it wants to sacrifice its government or retain it. According to sources in the Left parties, the Congress has not yet taken the political decision to freeze the deal despite the October 12 climbdown. In their view, the most important question is whether the Congress can take that decision. The meeting on November 16 and 17 may well provide an answer.

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