So, where does India stand on the nuclear deal now? After what both Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi said at the
, it is clear that political pundits who have been predicting (and in some cases, itching for) a confrontation between the government and the Left will have to revise their assessments. It is as clear that the conventional wisdom in Delhi — that we were looking at a general election in March — will have to be overhauled.
But first, here are the things that haven’t changed — no matter what the Big Two said at the Summit. One: few unbiased observers doubt that the deal works to India’s advantage. You don’t have to think very much of the US or of George W Bush to see that India gains a backdoor entry into the hitherto restrictive club of nuclear weapons states.
The negotiations that have led up to the agreement represent a remarkable diplomatic triumph for India and it is not difficult to see why rival powers — chiefly Pakistan and China — are doing their best to scupper the deal.
Two: it is as clear that the Left’s real objections are not to the deal at all but to any kind of alliance with the United States. The Communist parties have never forgiven the US for winning the Cold War and cannot abide the thought that any government over which they have some influence will draw India closer to Washington. This feeling may be most loudly expressed by the Politburo but it extends all the way down to the cadre.
Because the Left cannot say that it opposes the deal only out of blind anti-Americanism, it has dressed up its objections in specific terms: one aspect of the 123 Agreement, another clause in the Hyde Act etc.
Three: there is a huge level of impatience with the Left within the UPA. Even otherwise responsible politicians believe that the Communists may be protecting Beijing’s interests.
Moreover, there is growing anger over the bullying rhetoric employed by sections of the Left — chiefly the CPI, whose leaders now spend more time on briefing the press than on making policy.
All that still holds true. So, why the apparent change in stance? Well, that’s more complicated.
First of all, I think it is wrong to say that the UPA was ever dead set on a confrontation with the Left to the extent that it believed that the nuclear deal was a make-or-break issue for the government.
The allies supported the deal but never regarded it as vital to the continuance of the government. The Congress was more enthusiastic but its members have a historical suspicion of American foreign policy objectives. These suspicious were allayed by the assurances offered by Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, but they never fully vanished.
The view that the deal was a make-or-break issue emerged from a) the Prime Minister’s needlessly provocative (but entirely sincere and deeply-felt) interview to
in August; b) briefings by members of the PMO to the effect that Manmohan Singh would rather go down with the deal than compromise; c) the belligerent stance adopted by some ministers in their TV appearances; and, d) a vocal pro-American lobby in the media that urged the government to tell the Left to go to hell. These writers suggested that were the deal to be delayed then the government would lose its moral authority though why this should follow was never adequately explained.
It had also become clear that if the Left withdrew support, an election was the only option. Sections of the Congress wanted an April election. If the government waited a year then the monsoon might well fail and food prices could shoot up leading to anti-incumbency sentiment.
The bulk of the party, however, was not ready to fight a general election. State units said that they needed more time and it was feared that an election now would benefit neither the Congress nor the BJP but would only work to the advantage of such wild cards as Mayawati whose aura has yet to fade in UP.
The allies were less conflicted. No party — not the DMK, the RJD or the NCP — wanted an election. Many felt that the deal was an electoral non-issue and some feared that Muslims would be told that a vote for the deal was a vote for George W Bush and his “anti-Islamic foreign policy”.
Third, there was the question of what would happen after the election. As no party would get an overall majority, one of several situations could result. The NDA (with the BJP as its primary constituent) could form the government. Given that the BJP has publicly opposed the deal as an affront to India’s sovereignty, an NDA government could not have gone ahead with it.
A more likely outcome (judging by the opinion polls) was that the Congress would increase its tally at the expense of the Left and the BJP. But even if that happened, the Congress would still not have got an overall majority. It would have needed the support of Mayawati (who does not back the deal) or the Left — in addition to its existing allies — to form a government. In that case we would have been back to square one — the deal was still a goner.
The most feared outcome was a Third Front government with somebody like Mayawati or Jayalalithaa as Prime Minister. Such a government would have needed the Left to make up a parliamentary majority. And so, the deal would have stalled anyway.
No matter how you did the math, there was no way that an election would have thrown up a government capable of passing the deal.
In the circumstances, once tempers had cooled and the UPA had taken a long, hard look at the choices, the Big Two were left with only one real option: stick with the status quo, and try and negotiate again with the Left. That realisation accounts for their statements at the HT Summit.
So, what does the immediate future hold? My guess is that the government will tell the US that it is slowing down the process of going ahead with the deal. Next, it will offer to consult the Left at every step and to take its objections into account rather than treat the nuclear agreement as a done deal and rush ahead with its operationalisation.
What happens after that depends largely on the Left. Some senior government figures believe that the Communists had begun to come around before the PM’s provocative interview. Now, they will be able to go back to their cadres, claim that they have won this confrontation and say that it is the UPA that has blinked. That “victory” may give the Left leaders the moral authority they need to support an amended version of the original deal. They can now claim that they’ve forced the UPA to back down and to remove some of the “pro-American” clauses from the deal.
If that happens, then the deal will go ahead. It will almost certainly be delayed and it will be tweaked, but the essence will be preserved.
Alternatively, the Left could simply decide to be bloody-minded and not accept any version of the deal at all. On Friday, the Prime Minister told the
that if the deal died he would be disappointed but not necessarily devastated — life would still go on.
Some observers have interpreted this remark to mean that the deal is definitely dead. But it is more likely that the denouement has been postponed rather than cancelled. If the Left can show a degree of flexibility now that the PM has demonstrated a willingness to compromise on his core agenda, then the deal could still go ahead.
But the entire episode leaves us with several lessons. It teaches us that in a coalition situation it does not pay to provoke allies whose support you need for survival. It reminds us that no matter how much the Congress may strut, it does not really have a mandate. It is the UPA — with the support of the Left — that has the mandate.
And it tells us that the recent media caricature of Manmohan Singh as a poorly-advised, single-issue Prime Minister who is overly reactive, and easily misled into being needlessly provocative and foolishly stubborn is not accurate.
When it comes to the crunch, the Prime Minister has shown that he can look at the big picture, pull back and demonstrate the flexibility that you need to lead a coalition.