The Congress-led UPA was sandwiched between the Left and the Right over the Indo-US nuclear deal when they walked out of the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday to demand that the pact be put on hold.
The walkout came after external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee's reply to the debate failed to impress the deal's opponents who wanted the Treasury to take the sense of the House and move forward only if there was bipartisan support for the deal.
Mukherjee averred it was early for the House to take a view as the civilian nuclear cooperation agreement is still under process. What if the US Congress rejects the deal, he asked. “We have not said that we will not take the sense of the House,” the minister said, indicating that the government would revert to Parliament after the hurdles are overcome.
Members of various political formations — the NDA, Left and others like the Samajwadi Party — heard Mukherjee's speech with rapt attention. But they started moving out while he made these points in response to clarifications sought by the BJP's Jaswant Singh. “They have no case…” remarked a mildly irritated Mukherjee.
As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sat by his side, Mukherjee delivered perhaps the deal's best defence in the marathon debate. Rather than loading it with technical and legal details, he gave the issue the historical and political perspective required from the government's standpoint and that of the Congress.
The minister emphasised that the 123 Agreement place no bar on nuclear tests if geo-political developments necessitated one. But India would — like on previous occasions — have to be prepared for the consequences.
He also countered CPM’s Sitaram Yechury’s criticism on the economics of nuclear power and the fact that the US had not set up nuclear power plants in three decades. The costs would go down as technology develops — as had happened in the case of mobile phones.
Mukherjee went on to argue that growing consciousness about climate change and volatility of international oil market made imperative “an optimal utilisation of all sources of power”.
Urging members not to be suspicious of the government's motives, he compared their criticism of the nuclear initiative with the usual resistance to change.
Mukherjee drew parallels with initial responses to Rajiv Gandhi’s push for IT and the bogey that product patents would kill the domestic pharmaceutical industry. As questions were even then asked as to how it would benefit the aam aadmi, the government was open to discussing the deal the fifth time in the House.
Arun Shourie (BJP) charged that US companies manufacturing nuclear reactors were lobbying for the deal that would end up imposing sanctions if India were to carry out a test even for peaceful purposes.
Abhishek Singhvi cited US Constitution and Supreme Court judgments to dispel the notion that the Hyde Act would prevail over the 123 Agreement. “When a Statute is in conflict with a treaty, the latter of the two enactments prevail over the earlier in the last in time rule,” he said.
Kapil Sibal packed his arguments with legalese and political riposte to wonder what happened between 2000 and 2007 to make the BJP oppose the deal. Digvijay Singh (JD-U) said that the sense of the house was against the deal.