Since late last year, Manmohan Singh’s political strategy to secure the passage of the Indo-US nuclear agreement has assumed the Left would never support the deal, say sources close to the prime minister.
Two things kept Singh’s hopes alive: first, the depth of support for the deal in every other segment of the Indian establishment and, two, his recognition that a Congress-Left divorce was inevitable.
Singh had concluded in August last year that the CPI(M)’s Prakash Karat was uninterested in the merits of the nuclear deal, that his opposition was ideological and not rational.
When the actual nuclear text, the so-called 123 agreement, was being negotiated, Singh had ordered National Security Adviser MK Narayanan and atomic energy czar Anil Kakodkar to ensure all the nine demands regarding the deal raised by Sitaram Yechury in Parliament in 2007 were addressed.
When the 123 agreement was finalized in late July last year, Singh called in leaders of both the BJP and the Left and showed them the text. The BJP leaders made no complaints. One of them even praised the Indian negotiators. The Left leaders only said they would study the text.
Singh was watching TV several days later, and saw Karat demand the Congress “press the pause button” on the deal. At this point, the PM concluded that the Left would never be won over, though he did make one appeal to the Bengal communists in an interview to a Kolkata daily.
Singh recognised that electoral politics buttressed the stance of the Left ideologues. “He knew the Left and the Congress would part ways as general elections approached. The logic of Kerala and West Bengal politics meant the Left would eventually seek to distance themselves from the Congress,” said one of Singh’s advisers. The Left would find an excuse to attack the Congress, irrespective of whether there was a nuclear deal or not.
This was why the Left undermined the Congress at every possible chance, even though this benefited the religious right.
At one point, Singh told Yechury: “I will hold you responsible for bringing the BJP back to power.” The communist leader protested he stood for secularism. “Congress has never got into bed with the BJP. The Left did in 1977 and 1987. Everything you have done in the past four years has been to the benefit of the opposition,” replied the prime minister.
All of this convinced Singh “he had to stand his ground” and simply wait for the right political opportunity.
Singh was also emboldened by the “overwhelming support” for the deal he found throughout the Indian security and nuclear establishment. Despite their public stances, many BJP leaders and Congress allies too gave it the thumbs up. By the autumn of last year, it was clear “the only ideological opposition came from the Left.”
Singh’s own instinct had been to break with the Left last year, but his own party held him back. “The prime minister had no doubts the Congress would have done well electorally last year. His own assessment was that the 2008 economic situation would be much worse,” say sources. “Many think he surrendered to the Left last year. He withdrew to fight another day.”
Throughout, Singh kept his door open to other elements of the Indian polity. Though direct overtures began only a fortnight ago, say sources, “the prime minister always kept an open line” to the Samajwadi Party’s Amar Singh and Mulayam Singh Yadav in the months beforehand.
Singh was unmoved by two political arguments made against the deal from within his party. One was that it would enrage Indian Muslim voters. The SP had campaigned against the nuclear deal during the Uttar Pradesh elections and been rebuffed by Muslim voters. And an anti-deal stance hadn’t helped the Left as it took a drubbing from Muslim peasants during the recent West Bengal panchayat polls.
The other was that elections should be delayed because of inflation. As an economist, Singh knew that the inflationary drivers were global oil, steel and commodity prices, and these would remain high no matter how long polls were postponed.
On a more personal note, the prime minister was especially wounded by the unremitting public abuse he faced from Karat and other Left leaders — they were more critical of him than the BJP.
“Are you allies or the opposition?” he asked them more than once. Ultimately, the battle over the nuclear deal was only one manifestation of an alliance born of convenience and living on borrowed time.