Ever since the BJP brass met at AB Vajpayee’s house on August 3 to formulate a tough stand on the India-US civilian nuclear deal, party leaders have been hard put to explain their line. The latest round of reports of the softening of the BJP stand come in the backdrop of high-level US contacts with senior leaders LK Advani and Rajnath Singh and former security adviser Brajesh Mishra. This, after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told US President George W Bush “certain difficulties” stand in the way of “operationalising” the deal.
Even as US emissaries have been attempting to convince the BJP about the merits of the deal, Advani and Rajnath maintain the deal in its “present form” is not acceptable. They say its terms will have to be re-negotiated to ensure India's right to pursue nuclear weapons development, strategic decisions and independent foreign policy is not compromised. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has ruled out re-negotiation.
That being the case, why then is the BJP issuing clarifications? Is it because of the US overtures? Or has the party been led to an extreme position on the issue without thinking about the impact on the middle-class, once its support base?
Ruling out any possibility of the BJP supporting the government on the deal, key BJP leaders, however, admit statements attributed to Advani in August and Rajnath's interview to a Hindi newspaper recently have indicated the party must re-work its nuclear politics. While Advani subsequently clarified his stand, Rajnath has been milder in his opposition.
Arguing there is no change in the party's stand, BJP leaders point to Advani's repeated assertion that the BJP would want Parliament to give its opinion on the deal through a vote after debate. “If Advani wants a vote, does it not amount to the BJP sticking to a tough line,” asked one party leader.
While Mishra was quoted as saying he would let the deal go ahead if he were convinced India's weapons programme is safe, Rajnath was quoted by the newspaper asserting that the BJP could even support the government on the deal if his party's concerns were addressed.
And on Monday, Rajnath told US envoy David Mulford the BJP had no objection to a nuclear deal with the US if it did not compromise India's right to conduct nuclear tests and develop weapons programme, decide on strategic matters and pursue an independent foreign policy. Mulford, who met Advani and Mishra last week, had driven to Rajnath's residence to “understand the party's concern”, explain the “highlights” of the deal and “provide an overview” of its various clauses.
When former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called on Advani, he said he was not meeting him to press the US’ case, though it was in the best interests of the two countries to move ahead. Advani explained that the BJP was the only party since 1966 (after China conducted its nuclear tests in 1964) to consistently favour an independent nuclear weapons programme for India. “No other party favoured that line except when Indira Gandhi agreed on Pokhran-I in 1974. Subsequently, US pressure prevented the Narasimha Rao government from conducting further tests. The BJP ordered Pokhran-II in 1998 when it came to power,” said Advani, adding that that was the reason why the party couldn't agree to an agreement that would effectively bar Pokhran-III.
BJP leader Venkaiah Naidu reiterated the “deal in its present form is not acceptable to us” and “we are ready to oppose it in Parliament”.
Cong to wait for BJP to make first move
The Congress on Tuesday dismissed as “hypothetical” suggestions that it would take the BJP’s help on the nuclear deal in the winter session of Parliament, when the deal is expected to be debated. It also avoided reacting to efforts made by US officials to try and convince the BJP. But AICC media department chairperson Veerappa Moily did hit out at the BJP for reportedly changing its stand, saying: “They have one stand today, another tomorrow. Let us wait for their gesture.”