Khaleej Times (India) - 24 October 2007 -
INDIA’S ruling United Progressive Alliance has
blinked first in its eyeball-to-eyeball standoff
with the Left over the India-US nuclear deal. It
has suspended negotiations to complete it.
Statements made last week by Prime Minister
Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia
Gandhi suggest the suspension could last months.
Both stressed that Parliament elections "are
still far away"; and the government will
"complete its term" in 2009. Singh said the
deal’s death will be "a disappointment, but not
the end of life." Gandhi paid tributes to the
Left and said: "We’re not looking for a
confrontation. You have to understand the Left.
They have an ideology. We’re certainly not in
favour of early elections."
Overzealous supporters of the deal have put
fanciful interpretations on these utterances to
claim the UPA will ram through an amended version
of the deal.
In truth, the deal is on the way to the cold
storage unless the Congress wants early elections
which its UPA partners oppose.
The UPA failed to persuade or pressure the Left
to go "soft" on the deal. But the Left wouldn’t
blink. It was prepared to face losses in an early
election, but not dilute its opposition to the
deal, based on ideological grounds, which - right
or wrong - it takes seriously.
What clinched the issue was hard-nosed power
calculations. UPA allies DMK, Rashtriya Janata
Dal and Nationalist Congress opposed a mid-term
election, in which they’re likely to do much
worse than in 2004.
Most Congress leaders too were loath to risk
elections in which the party would at best win
170 seats (present tally, 145 of a total of 543).
Aggressively pursuing the deal would probably
mean losing the government-and the deal too. The
UPA’s collapse would expose lack of a domestic
consensus on the deal and strengthen its
The Left proved unrelenting even after a
last-ditch October 6/7 effort by Foreign Minister
Pranab Mukherjee through senior CPM leader Jyoti
Basu. Eventually, the UPA-Left joint committee on
October 9 put the deal on hold.
The deal would have faced stiff opposition in the
Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, where even one of its
45 member-states can block an exemption for India
from its nuclear commerce rules. Ireland, New
Zealand and the Nordics are opposed to such
exemption. Germany, Japan and China - which is
keeping its cards close to its chest - might join
However, opposition at the IAEA shouldn’t be
underrated. India wanted to sign an unprecedented
inspections agreement with it that fits neither
its standard categories: for the nuclear
weapons-states (NWSs) recognised by the
Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and for non-NWSs.
This would have been resisted and at least
delayed by its 35-strong Board of Governors. A
long delay in clearing the deal would be fatal.
The deadline for its approval is set by US
politics. If Bush can’t present the deal to
Congress for ratification by February/March, when
the Democrats and Republicans name their
presidential candidates, the deal is as good as
The deal is very much Bush’s baby and won’t go
through Congress unless he puts enormous
political capital behind it. He won’t have much
capital left as a true lame-duck President early
next year. Given these dynamics, the deal’s
moment may well have passed.
How will this new reality influence Indian public
perceptions? What does it mean for India-US
relations? And will affect Indian politics?
Indian perceptions are sharply polarised between
the elite, which craves for the deal as the
cornerstone of a strategic partnership with the
US, and a majority of the people, who are
sceptical or indifferent. The US isn’t exactly
popular in India.
Yet, such is the influence of the crusading
pro-American lobby in the Indian media that it
has presented the deal as a litmus test for
India’s emergence as a Great Power:! This has
damaged the media’s credibility - which doesn’t
bode well for democracy.
The debate however has positive fallout: in
raising questions about the viability of nuclear
power, and in highlighting the deal’s likely
effects on the global prospect for nuclear
The nuclear power debate need to be pursued
seriously, with a sharp analysis of its
economics, environmental soundness and its
potential for grave accidents and legacy of
radioactive wastes which remain hazardous of
centuries. It would be foolhardy to plunge into
nuclear power development - just when much of the
world is shunning it.
The deal would have encouraged other countries to
cross the nuclear threshold, and fuelled a
nuclear arms race in Asia. This may have been
The deal’s suspension will slow down India’s
strategic alignment with the US. At a time when
the US Global War on Terror is destabilising the
world, this is welcome, as would be the likely
suspension of the proposed India-US Logistics
Support Agreement, which will allow the
reciprocal use of facilities for refuelling and
servicing of military craft. This doesn’t argue
against improved and balanced Indo-US relations,
but only against a close strategic, but unequal,
The new situation will doubtless change UPA-Left
relations. But if the Congress recognises some
basic ground-rules of coalition politics, that
change could be for the better. The Left is an
ideologically driven force, whose commitment to
some principles and aversion to certain policies
must be respected to secure its support.
Even the BJP kept in abeyance - albeit
opportunistically - controversial issues like the
Ram temple, Uniform Civil Code and Article 370 to
build the National Democratic Alliance. The
Congress can do better by moderating some of its
policies in good faith.
The Indian public has inadvertently gained from
the recent standoff, in the form of
election-oriented "populist" measures like
extension of the National Rural Employment
Guarantee scheme. Such measures must be heartily
Praful Bidwai is a veteran Indian journalist and
commentator. He can be reached at