Say this for the Indo-US nuclear deal: it never loses the power to surprise us. Last autumn, nearly every newspaper and every news channel told us that an election was imminent over the deal. They had been briefed by the Prime Minister’s Office, they said, that Manmohan Singh had decided to resign if the nuclear deal did not go through. As these briefings came from authorised sources, there was no reason to disbelieve them. Moreover, the PM himself had given the only interview of his prime ministership to suggest that he was prepared to sacrifice his government over the nuclear deal.
As the speculation mounted, Manmohan Singh came to address the HT Leadership Summit. I had persuaded him to answer questions at the end of his speech and as the audience asked him about the deal, he seemed vague and suddenly unwilling to commit himself. Sensing that he had changed his position, I pushed him. Was an election imminent? Was he ready to resign? Would the government fall?
Finally, Manmohan Singh spoke his mind. He was committed to the deal, he said. He hoped it would go ahead. But even if it did not, it would not be the end. It would be a disappointment, he conceded. But in life, one has to live with
What had happened? For all of us on the outside, it was hard to tell. But as far as I could judge, what had happened was this: the PM was deeply committed to the deal; Sonia was deeply committed to the PM; the Congress supported the deal but its members did not think it was worth sacrificing the government for; and the allies were terrified of an early election. A compromise had been reached. The PM had agreed to moderate his more absolute position and the Congress had promised him that it would try and reach some accommodation with the Left.
At that stage, I believed that there was a chance that Prakash Karat would accept a modified version of the nuclear deal. As for the BJP, we all knew that its objections were not only based on political expediency, but that they were damaging the party’s image with its core middle-class constituency.
It was possible — but not necessarily likely — that political positions would change enough in the months ahead for some version of the deal to go through. But even if it did not, we thought that the UPA had decided not to treat it as a make-or-break issue. After all, as Manmohan Singh had said at the Summit: “We are not a one-issue government.”
And yet, here we are, the following summer, back to where we started that autumn. The media are full of stories about how Manmohan Singh will resign if the deal does not go ahead. Prakash Karat is back to being rigid and uncompromising. And the Mahesh and Pooja Bhatt of the Left parties — AB Bardhan and D Raja — are back to offering a dial-a-quote service for the media. It all seems uncomfortably reminiscent of the crisis that prevailed just before last year’s HT Summit.
But there are a few differences. First of all, we are not really sure that Manmohan Singh has threatened to resign if the deal does not go through. Last year, that view had been based on PMO briefings and his own belligerent interview. This year, the source for the Manmohan-will-quit stories is the Left which is repeating what it claims to have been told by the UPA.
Secondly, there is a view in the Congress to the effect that a November election may not actually be a bad idea. The current inflation rate of 11 per cent is a response to the fuel price hike. The monsoon will be good and once the impact of the fuel hike settles down, prices may go down. By October or so, inflation may well be under control. So why shouldn’t the Congress go to the polls a few months too early, having implemented its own agenda (i.e., the
Thirdly, while the BJP has stuck to its old position in the face of all logic, there are cracks within the party. Brajesh Mishra has suggested that the deal is worth considering. Such powerful voices as Arun Jaitley have not said a word against the deal. Such free thinkers as Murli Manohar Joshi are said to be opposed to the BJP’s illogical stand on the deal. Even L.K. Advani seems to waver slightly.
Fourthly, the UPA may find that it has support from a new quarter. Wiped out in UP and left out at the Centre, the Samajwadi Party recognises the importance of an electoral understanding with the Congress. It might ask its 39 Lok Sabha MPs to support the government. (Then again, it might not. With the SP, nothing is certain till the votes have been cast or the suitcase delivered.)
And finally, the UPA’s allies now seem less averse to an early election than they were last year. The important ones — the RJD and the DMK, for instance — are no longer as terrified as they used to be. Perhaps they reckon that a few months less will make no difference.
Despite these factors, I reckon that the basic position is much the same as it was last year. Few educated Indians doubt that the deal is in our country’s interest. If it involved some kind of alliance with the US then we could understand why the Left was so opposed to it. But as no such alliance is involved, the great mystery is: why does Prakash Karat remain so unremittingly hostile? He is a patriot (don’t believe all those stories about Chinese influence) and an intelligent man. So why is he willing to line up with the Venkaiah Naidus and Rajnath Singhs of the world?
But given the extent of Karat’s hostility, there are still doubts about whether a confrontation with the Left is warranted. Is the deal really so important? Is it so fundamental an issue that the Congress and the UPA should sacrifice power for its sake?
Some voices still call for a compromise: why not delay the confrontation till the autumn? The US Congress will still be composed of the same people. George W Bush will still be in the White House. Nothing very much is lost by waiting a few months.
My guess is that ultimately it will all boil down to one person. Not Sonia Gandhi, but Manmohan Singh.
Anyone who has spoken to Manmohan Singh will recognise his frustration. His view is that all this euphoria over the Indian Century is overstated. We have only a small window to establish ourselves as one of the superpowers of the future. With the coming of a global recession, that window is already closing. If we had managed to bring in the kind of foreign investment that was knocking at our doors then we could have secured the future of India for generations.
But the Left did not agree. And billions of dollars were kept out.
For Dr Singh, the deal is not about America or about military might. It is about energy for India’s development needs, about ending our isolation with the nuclear community and about being accepted on our terms. Each time he talks about the deal, he talks only about development, progress and possible prosperity.
His frustration is that while he transformed India in five years as Finance Minister, he has not been able to engineer a similar transformation as Prime Minister. He is not satisfied with the prosperity of recent years; he reckons that the benefits of that prosperity have yet to fully reach the poor.
To Manmohan Singh, the nuclear deal is a symbol of the development opportunities that have been squandered as we have practised the politics of compromise; as we have been held hostage by stubborn men who cling to discredited 19th-century ideologies.
He might well decide that such is his personal frustration that there’s no point hanging on at Race Course Road if he does not have the power to do the things that he knows need to be done. He has stayed on out of respect for his colleagues, his leader and his allies. But his frustration is growing.
I don’t know what Manmohan Singh will decide. He may give in to his frustration. Or he may stay on to fight another day. But I do know that the UPA will go with his decision.
If Manmohan stays, so does the government. Otherwise we can get ready for the election.