NEW DELHI – India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has plunged his Congress Party and the country’s ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government into a grave crisis by staking his personal reputation on pushing through a U.S.-India civilian nuclear cooperation deal.
In the balance is not only the survival of the government, but also the ability of the UPA to face an early national election amidst adverse circumstances, including growing public discontent at rising inflation which is now 11 percent a year and a growing threat from the now resurgent Hindu-nationalist, right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Singh doggedly insists that the left-wing parties on whom the minority UPA government depends for its parliamentary survival be overruled on their demand that the government take no further steps in completing the nuclear deal.
At a crucial meeting last week of a UPA-Left committee set up to discuss the deal, the two sides failed to reach any agreement, and only resolved to hold a final meeting at an as-yet-unspecified date.
The Left has rejected the UPA’s demand that the government be allowed to approach the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna to approve an agreement that it recently signed with the agency’s secretariat on inspections and safeguards for the civilian reactors that India will offer to put under its charge as part of the deal.
Last November, the UPA and the Left agreed that the government could hold talks with the IAEA secretariat.
But now, the Left parties have made it clear that they will withdraw support to the UPA the moment it approaches the IAEA Board, which Singh is reportedly keen on doing before he goes to Japan as a special invitee to the G8 summit on July 7-9.
Singh’s ultimatum to the Congress and the UPA that they must back him unconditionally has caused consternation, not least because Singh is considered a political lightweight who has never won a popular election, but who claims that his government has the democratic mandate to effect a paradigm shift in India’s nuclear, security, and foreign policy posture by completing the controversial deal.
The top leadership of the Congress Party, including its president, Sonia Gandhi, has not yet fully made up its mind on how to react to Singh, and is exploring and examining various options.
Among them: a parting of the ways with the Left and a mid-term election; a last-ditch effort to rescue its government by seeking support from the Samajwadi Party, a traditional Congress opponent; and altogether overruling Singh and not taking any further steps to complete the deal.
"One must hope that Manmohan Singh does not lead the Congress and the UPA into a disaster by dogmatically insisting on pushing the deal through," says Achin Vanaik, a Delhi University political scientist. "That would rupture the UPA’s present arrangement with the Left, which is a bulwark against Hindu chauvinism, and pave the way for the BJP to make a bid for power."
"Besides," adds Vanaik, "the government lacks a popular mandate to complete the deal. Ironically, Singh is embarking on this terrible gamble when it is not even clear that the deal can be put through its next complicated steps and completed before George W. Bush demits office as president."
If and when the IAEA Board of Governors endorses the safeguards agreement, the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) must be persuaded to grant India unconditional exemption from its tough rules governing nuclear commerce although India has not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and has acquired nuclear weapons.
In the next crucial step, the U.S. Congress has to ratify a bilateral agreement called the 123 agreement signed between Washington and New Delhi before the deal can take effect.
The window of opportunity for completing these steps is fast slamming shut, if it has not already closed. Many U.S. policymakers believe that it may be too late to send the deal to the U.S. Congress for ratification. Among them is Ashley Tellis, an architect of the deal, who recently told the Financial Times that it’s "probably correct" that the deal is "dead."
Similarly, Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association of the U.S., which has closely followed the agreement’s tortuous negotiation, says the deal is somewhere "between intensive care and the mortuary."
According to U.S. Sen. Joseph Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the deal probably won’t gain final approval during Bush’s term. Asked whether the deal was dead, Biden said: "I think it is, but not because of us," pointing to domestic political hurdles in New Delhi.
Biden added: "Practically speaking, I think if it’s not done by the time we go to the August recess, it’s awfully hard" to wrap up the deal by the time Bush’s presidency ends in January.
"The deal is likely to face major hurdles even before the U.S. Congress deadline approaches," says M.V. Ramana, an independent nuclear affairs analyst attached to the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in the Environment and Development in Bangalore. "The greatest of these will be encountered at the NSG, many of whose members are certain to ask questions and demand clarifications from the U.S. and India."
The official Indian calculation is that New Delhi can obtain "a clean and unconditional" exemption from the NSG quickly. But the next scheduled meeting of the NSG is not before September. And it is known that several of its members, including Ireland, New Zealand, and Sweden, and possibly Australia, are uncomfortable with the exception the deal makes for India in the global nuclear commerce regime. They are bound to ask questions and lay down conditions.
"In general," adds Ramana, "there is a feeling among some NSG members that major concessions have already been made in India’s favor because it will be allowed to keep its nuclear weapons. It is therefore reasonable to ask that India pledge not to conduct another nuclear test or agree to cease fissile material production. Four major nuclear states France, Russia, the UK, and the U.S. have already declared that they will not produce nuclear fuel, and China is observing a moratorium in practice."
However, India has said that it will not accept any such conditions, but will insist on a clean categorical exemption. The NSG debate itself likely to be a prolonged one might effectively scupper the deal as far as India is concerned.
Singh’s supporters argue that the nuclear deal has become a "litmus test" for India’s international credibility and prestige. But the international community knows that the deal does not enjoy consensual support within India and that the compulsions of India’s domestic democratic politics are the biggest obstacle to completing it.
The Bush administration itself seems reconciled to a delay in completing the deal. On June 23, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said: "We’d like to believe that this deal is one that can and should be supported by whoever comes into office in January of 2009. But obviously, the next U.S. government will have to look at this and make their own decisions."
Singh, then, is staking his reputation and authority on what many in the Congress Party regard as a false premise.
"This is a dangerous gamble, with potentially terrible consequences for the Congress Party and the UPA," says Vanaik. "If they are wise, they will desist from pushing the deal through at this belated stage."
(Inter Press Service)