My views on the nuclear deal have always been clear if slightly complex. I think India got a very good deal from the US and the agreement was in our country’s interests.
However, I also believe that the last government did not have a mandate to go forward with the deal. The UPA was a coalition and the majority of its members/allies were not in favour of it. Even the Congress party had to be forced to fall in line.
In the circumstances, I did not think it was wise to link the survival of the government to the clinching of the deal. My position was the same as Manmohan Singh’s original position: “If the nuclear deal does not go through, it will be a disappointment. But it will not be the end of life.” (He said this to me at the HT Summit).
Where I disagreed with the Prime Minister was on his second position: if the deal does not go through, I will resign.
This was easy enough for him to say. But it was his party that had to do the dirty work, putting up with the Samajwadi Party’s demands, buying him a majority in the confidence vote etc.
At the end of all this, the nuclear deal did not even matter to the electorate. Every survey showed that voters did not care about it and no Congress campaigner — not even Manmohan Singh himself! — referred to it much in election speeches.
Nothing I have seen over the last few weeks has caused me to change my position on the deal.
However, there is another perspective. On TV on Sunday night as we were debating the factors that led to the Congress victory, Barkha Dutt made an interesting point. Even if the deal did the Congress no good, did it do Manmohan Singh’s personal image a lot of good? (And in the process, did the Congress benefit any way?)
The argument runs as follows: Manmohan Singh was regarded as a weak Prime Minister, pushed around by the Left and content to do the bidding of 10, Janpath. (This may not have been the truth but it was a dominant perception anyway.)
When he went out on a limb for the deal, defying the Left and forcing Sonia Gandhi (who was hardly the deal’s greatest advocate) to go out and find a majority for him, even putting her in a situation where she had to be nice to Amar Singh, he indicated that he was no weakling.
When he wanted something, he got it. He could make everyone — Sonia, the party etc — do what he wanted. And he could tell the Left to get lost.
It was because of the deal that the BJP’s attempts to caricature him as a weak Prime Minister did not work. People did not accept that he was Sonia Gandhi’s puppet because they had seen him standing up for what he believed in and making the party toe his line.
It’s an interesting theory and I’m beginning to think that it makes sense. However a combination of many factors allowed Dr Singh to transform his image. First of all, most of us were in favour of the deal and happy that it went through. Secondly, the unsmiling Prakash Karat had already alienated most of the country. Thirdly, we were disgusted by the BJP’s hypocrisy in opposing a deal that we knew it would have grabbed were it still in power. And finally, we liked the idea of the underdog triumphing.
Had all this not happened, then Manmohan Singh could have come across as a stubborn, single issue Prime Minister who sulked when he could not get his own way. And the naked buying of votes on his behalf could have sullied his reputation for integrity.
Fortunately for Dr Singh, the Congress (and Sonia and Rahul) threw itself whole-heartedly behind him. Even those allies who had been deal skeptics to begin with (Sharad Pawar and Lalu Prasad) backed him to the hilt. And the party managers bought him his majority without allowing him to dirty his own hands.
As a consequence, Manmohan Singh came across as a man of substance, willing to give up his position on an issue of principle. L.K. Advani came across as a humbug who would say anything to bring the government down and who covered up his hypocrisy by abusing the Prime Minister.
Small wonder then that Manmohan won and Advani lost. The nuclear deal nearly sank the first version of the UPA but it allowed Manmohan Singh to swim happily to the shore.