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Nuclear deal and the BJP

I want to share with you alleged details of how senior BJP leaders gave their word to support the Indo-US N-deal only to back out either under pressure from their own colleagues or because they changed their mind, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Jul 19, 2008 23:44 IST

Tomorrow Parliament will debate the vote of confidence tabled by the Prime Minister. Today, I want to share with you alleged details of how senior BJP leaders gave their word to support the Indo-US nuclear deal only to back out either under pressure from their own colleagues or because they inexplicably changed their mind. I can’t reveal how I came by the two stories I shall relate but I’ve double checked each of them with two separate sources. It’s for you to judge if they’re true.

Sometime in December 2007, the Prime Minister was informed that if he could re-assure the BJP that the Indo-US nuclear deal does not endanger India’s strategic nuclear deterrent the Opposition would endorse it. Accordingly, Dr Manmohan Singh called on Mr Vajpayee. Present at that meeting were LK Advani and Brajesh Mishra.

Mr Vajpayee heard the Prime Minister in rapt silence. When he finished Mr. Advani responded. He said he was satisfied and prepared to endorse the deal. Could the Prime Minister give in writing the details and arguments he had presented? Dr Singh agreed and shortly afterwards sent the BJP leadership a letter repeating what he had earlier verbally said.

However, things did not work out as promised. Mr Advani changed his mind. Responding to the PM’s letter, he claimed he had tried to persuade his colleagues to change the BJP’s position on the deal but they had put their foot down. They were adamant. He was, therefore, helpless.

I can’t say for sure who the recalcitrant colleagues were but I’m told they are Arun Shourie, Yashwant Sinha and Jaswant Singh. I haven’t checked with them because their known positions clearly suggest they would have opposed any endorsement of the deal. In fact, all three of them have given me interviews where their opposition was both unequivocal and vehement.

This leads to my second story. Contrary to the claim that the government did not earlier brief the BJP about the nuclear deal, the NSA, the Foreign Secretary and the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission met top leaders of the party to explain the contents of the 123 agreement. The meeting was arranged by the PM. From the BJP, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Yashwant Sinha, Arun Shourie and Jaswant Singh were present. LK Advani did not attend. It happened sometime in August 2007.

The meeting began with a few opening remarks from the PM before he handed over to his officials. When they were finished they answered questions put mainly by Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie. At the end of it all Jaswant Singh spoke. My sources remember his words as if they were spoken yesterday. “Gentlemen,” he is reported to have said, “I must compliment you on a job well done.” What made him change his mind four months later?

These two stories reveal a sorry picture of the BJP’s top leadership. They come across as men struggling to accept what they know is in India’s best interest but unable to do so either because they are prisoners of prejudice or unwilling to challenge their own colleagues. Or else why did they so conveniently flip-flop?

I won’t deny that I’ve accepted the veracity of these stories because, in each case, two independent sources, both unimpeachable and utterly trustworthy, have confirmed them. But, of course, I could still be wrong. It could emerge that I’ve been gullible. So let me put a question to the two gentlemen these stories principally concern, LK Advani and Jaswant Singh. If these stories are essentially untrue — not in minor detail but in the broad point they make — why don’t you issue a public statement to say so? After all, if irreproachable sources are spreading “lies” about you then, surely, it’s incumbent on you to refute them? Because if you don’t, your silence will inevitably be construed as acquiescence.

Better still, deny the stories on the floor of the House tomorrow. The whole country will hear you and then it’s up to the government to either keep shut or provide proof.