Isn’t it just the worst sort of déjà vu? Like a song stuck at the same false note or a mediocre movie whose dialogue and drama you know by heart, we have seen and heard it all before.
The script doesn’t change; nor does the ensemble cast. There’s the taciturn terseness of Prakash Karat, the masterly manoeuvring of Pranab Mukherjee and the voluble rhetoric of Lalu Prasad. And they are all spouting the same old lines on “national interest”. As always, Sitaram Yechury plays the role of the Congress’s favourite Marxist; the allies scurry about saying one thing in public and quite another in private and the Congress President says very little to anyone — aware perhaps, that the precarious space between ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ is ultimately hers and only hers, to navigate.
And then there’s the Prime Minister. Over the past two years it is clear to anyone who knows him that he sees the nuclear deal as the centrepiece of his political legacy. The Left may make acerbic remarks about how this isn’t a deal between George Bush and Manmohan Singh, but one between two countries. In other words, the Marxists argue that if needed, the deal can be sealed by the next government as well and the PM has been blinded by the need to leave his personal imprint on history. It’s a pretty unfair criticism. Manmohan Singh has been called many things by those who don’t like him — “weak”, “ineffective” and “oversensitive” among them — but no one has ever called him egotistical. Anyone who has spoken to him on the nuclear deal knows that he passionately believes that nuclear energy can transform India’s future, as will the end of nuclear apartheid.
But now the Prime Minister has to confront his own moment of truth. If he believes — as he does — that the nuclear deal could redefine India’s sense of self — what he does or doesn’t do next will determine his own claims to assertive leadership.
For months now, the PM has alternated between being cajoling and aggressive on the nuclear deal. So, at times, he erupts in frustrated anger and suddenly tells The Telegraph that the Left can walk out of the coalition if they wish; he knows what he needs to do. At other moments, stonewalled by the pressures of realpolitik, he has retreated into making mild proclamations on coalition dharma. Every time the Left and the UPA stand eyeball to eyeball and put troops in position for the next round of battle, rumours surface that the PM has told his party he will resign if India reneges on the nuclear deal.
And if he wants his words to have any weight and not be dismissed as momentary emotional despair, it may be time for Manmohan Singh to show that he means what he says. In four days from now when the Left parties tell his government that its time is marked if it walks the next step on the nuclear journey, the PM must show India that he has the courage of his convictions. And if his party, which has dithered and dragged its feet on this single issue for an indefensibly long time, aborts the attempt, the PM must quit. Or else, he will be remembered as the man who chose to trade his proudest political decision for seven extra months in South Block.
At one point the complexity of electoral pressures may have well demanded more patience from the PM. There was no reason to not give as much time as necessary to a dialogue with allies and coalition partners. It is also true that in the initial months when the Congress was hardselling the nuclear deal, the sales campaign was woefully mismanaged. Manmohan Singh’s visit to former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and senior BJP leader L.K. Advani came far too late and only after the crisis was spinning out of control. The UPA should have had both the humility and the cleverness to take the BJP into confidence in the nascent stages itself. That would have made it impossible for the BJP to play opponent today.
But now the Congress has made every attempt at damage control both within and outside. It has given the Marxists more than enough time to be persuaded and has still drawn a blank. And the political compulsions have shifted dramatically as well. In election season, the Congress is going to find it tough to explain that inflation is a by-product of a complex global trend. In Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati may technically still be an ally but she has made it brazenly clear that she doesn’t give a toss about the Congress. And the man the Congress loves to hate — Amar Singh — is back at the high table of dinner diplomacy. His entry as a new character in this old film could well transform the plot entirely. The Congress and the Samajwadi Party may not be united by love — but their collective loathing for the formidable CM of UP could create some new chemistry.
But even if all this were not true and the nuclear deal was to cost the UPA its last year in government and not win it the next election, the Prime Minister must still listen to his ‘inner voice’ (as Sonia Gandhi famously called it).
After all, isn’t it far better to lose an election and claim the moral high ground of strong leadership than to possibly be voted out anyway on pedestrian political issues of inflation and anti-incumbency? Manmohan Singh now has to decide: will he change the course of history and liberate us all from this wearying sense of staleness and stasis? Or will he succumb to competing political pressures and leave this story where it has been stuck for two long years — in a pathetic little stalemate?
Barkha Dutt is the Group Editor, English News, NDTV.