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The deal behind the Bill

The Congress got BJP support for the nuclear liability Bill by addressing the opposition party's 'genuine concerns' on the issue.

delhi Updated: Aug 19, 2010 01:05 IST
Shekhar Iyer

The government can heave a sigh of relief. With the BJP on board, it is fairly certain that government managers can now pilot the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill through Parliament.

The "broad agreement" between the Congress and the principal Opposition party — represented by Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley and Yashwant Sinha — over the Bill capped months of parleys to tide over differences on how to operationalise the Indo-US civil nuclear deal.

The compulsions
Each party was driven by its own compulsions.

It is no secret that when US President Barack Obama arrives in November, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wants the domestic politics behind the Indo-US civil nuclear deal behind him so that he can move on to other strategic areas of cooperation.

The passage of this Bill will allow him to do that.

Then, as Congress' floor managers vouched, doing business with the BJP is "less exacting" than having to negotiate support from groups like Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party and. Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal. In the past, these parties have extracted some concession or other in exchange for support on the floor.

The Congress also saw that, unlike the Left, which opposes anything to do with the US on ideological grounds, the BJP had always been ambivalent about the issue.

Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Minister of State for Science & Technology Prithviraj Chavan, who were in charge of the government's efforts to pass the Bill, realised that the impasse could be ended by "addressing" the BJP's "genuine concerns".

A little recap
Despite vehemently opposing the Indo-US N-deal, BJP prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani had, in the midst of the no-holds-barred Lok Sabha election campaign in 2009, told Hindustan Times in an exclusive interview that his party would not abrogate the civilian nuclear deal with the US if it was voted to power.

This was a complete volte face from his party's stand till then.

Advani's position underscored the BJP's worry –that opposing the deal could alienate the middle-class, which favours close ties with the US.

Not a somersault
Following the agreement between the two parties on Tuesday, Sushma Swaraj, Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha, took pains to reiterate that the BJP’s stand on the N-liability Bill was not a somersault.

"We do not oppose anything for the sake of opposition. We had placed our views right from the beginning with regard to the nuclear business in the light of our experience in the Bhopal gas tragedy. The government agreed with our point of view," she said.

Arun Jaitley, her counterpart in the Rajya Sabha, explained: "The BJP has expressed its willingness (to support the Bill) only after the Centre accepted seven changes — including an increase in the liability cap of the nuclear plant operator from the proposed Rs 500 crore to Rs 1,500 crore — that we had suggested."

Within hours of the deal, a parliamentary standing committee finalised its recommendations on the Bill, which was tabled on Wednesday. Now the Union Cabinet has enough time to incorporate the proposed changes and pilot an amended Bill through the House.