Nuke Deal: New Alignments In The Offing

06 September 2007
There are signs that the ruling United Progressive Alliance and Indian Left parties are willing to explore a rapprochement over the nuke deal stand off.
For the first time since the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the Left parties began their eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation over the “123 agreement” in early August, signs of a thaw or rapprochement have emerged with their joint decision to set up a committee to go into the issue. Formally, neither has retreated from its stated position on the India-United States nuclear deal. Yet, both have executed subtle but significant shifts of stance. In practice, the UPA has come close to meeting the Left’s demand that further talks on the deal with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) be put on hold. Thus, Indian officials will attend the IAEA annual conference beginning September 17, but will only negotiate an inspections (safeguards) agreement with the agency in November. India missed the August 17 deadline for giving notice of talks on the safeguards issue. This enlarges the UPA’s window of opportunity to negotiate an honourable compromise with the Left. No less important, Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh declined US President , Mr George Bush’s invitation to a special meeting at the end of August at his ranch in Crawford, Texas—a decision calculated to signal that the UPA doesn’t intend to be totally servile to Washington despite Dr Singh’s embarrassingly fulsome praise for Mr Bush as the “friendliest towards India” among “all the US presidents”. The UPA also rescheduled a Parliamentary debate on the deal to emphasise commonalities with the Left on the Srikrishna Commission report, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, and unorganised sector workers. For its part, the Left lowered the pitch of its attacks on the UPA for “drawing India into the strategic orbit of the US”. It moved from warning the UPA of the serious “consequences” of proceeding with the deal, to emphasising that it “does not want the current crisis to affect the government”. As CPM politburo member, Mr Sitaram Yechury put it, the Left is open to any “mechanism” to find a solution to the crisis. All that it demands is that the UPA press the “pause” button on the deal, not the “stop” or “eject” button. The two sides have since agreed to create the “mechanism”—a committee of their political leaders, which can summon scientists and other experts. The committee will discuss the Left’s “strategic” objections to the nuclear deal and also examine to what extent the “123 agreement” meets India’s concerns about sovereign control over its nuclear activities, raised by the Hyde Act’s preachy prescriptions. The deal’s operationalisation “will take into account the committee’s findings”. This is as good a compromise as was achievable. There are two components to the Hyde Act: non-binding exhortations, and legally obligatory Sections. Thus, the (in)famous portions which demand “congruence” between India’s foreign policy and US interests, and India’s help in isolating Iran, belong to the first category. But the Sections pertaining to the “right of return” (of nuclear equipment and material exported by the US) in the event of an Indian nuclear test are binding ones. The traditionally strongly pro-US Bharatiya Janata Party is moving from strong opposition to conditional or qualified support for the deal. On August 26, Mr L K Advani told The Indian Express that it would have no objection to the deal if the government amends domestic laws to ensure continuity in nuclear supplies through a “domestic Hyde Act”. He berated the Left for its “anti-Americanism” and said: “So far as the BJP is concerned, … we have no objection to a strategic partnership with the US…”. But in a flip-flop, he again called for the deal’s re-negotiation. This is a terrible comment on the BJP’s political consistency and credibility. Just three weeks ago, the same Mr Advani had approached the Left for coordinating “joint” opposition to the deal in Parliament, and was properly snubbed. At any rate, the BJP’s slimy shift should help crystallise different positions within the political spectrum. The emerging political situation is pregnant with many possibilities. An early mid-term election may be the most dramatic, but not the most likely, possibility. No party particularly wants an early election, nor is ready for one. A nationwide opinion poll by Outlook magazine says 63 per cent of respondents do not want a mid-term election. Although a narrow majority (52 percent) support the nuclear deal, an even higher 58 percent believe Dr Singh could have handled the deal-related crisis better, and 42 percent (including 51 percent of urban respondents) say India should not operationalise the deal until the Left’s objections have been met. This should take the wind out of the sails of those who claim that the Indian public does not quite trust or respect the Left, or that the deal is overwhelmingly popular. Indeed, as many as 44 percent aren’t even aware of the agreement and 61 percent believe it cannot be an election issue. However, if elections are nevertheless held in the very near future, the outcome is unlikely to be radically different from the present composition of the Lok Sabha. According to a large-sample (12,000 respondents) survey of 120 constituencies by NDTV-GfK-MODE, the Congress stands to gain the most, and the BJP to lose the most, from a mid-term election. The Left too is likely to lose perhaps 10 to 15 seats, not least because of serious infighting within the CPM in Kerala, but also because it won’t get the support of many allies in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, as it did in 2004.. According to this forecast, the Congress would win 185 seats, up from 145 in 2004. Its UPA allies like the RJD are likely to lose some. The UPA’s total tally would only stand at 232 seats—20 higher than in 2004 (212), and marginally above the present total (221). The BJP is forecast to win 116 seats, in place of the earlier 140. The NDA as a whole is likely to lose more than 20 seats of its 2004 total of 180. (I personally feel the Congress might do better and the NDA worse.) Going by the NDTV poll, the Left would win 39 seats, down from 59 in 2004. The BSP, with 42 seats (2004 tally, 23 seats), could emerge as the biggest gainer; while the Samajwadi Party would be the biggest loser—reduced to half the 36 seats it won in 2004. The Left, then, has very little to gain from an early election. That is a strong practical reason why it should not precipitate one. In any case, it’s a safe bet that the CPM’s West Bengal and Tripura units will be most reluctant to risk an early election. Not only did they perform spectacularly in the last state Assembly elections—the Left Front won as many as 235 out of 294 seats in West Bengal—; they have a comfortable equation with the UPA at the Centre, and would be loath to oppose its government on a foreign or security policy issue. If no early elections are held, as seems most probable, the political scenario will evolve in a direction that largely favours Left-of-Centre forces, especially if the UPA focuses on the unorganised sector and on agriculture. It is reportedly formulating three schemes for the unorganised, which are likely to further its aam aadmi claim. The NDA seems set for a hard time as the BJP’s disarray continues and more of its allies desert it. © Copyright Navhind Papers & Publications Ltd