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Political survival vs energy imperatives

The UPA leadership feels that the present is not the appropriate time to break up with the Left parties and go for an election.

india Updated: Oct 30, 2007 11:48 IST

Both in politics and in military strategy buying time by reaching a tactical agreement with the potential adversary is a standard procedure. India's governing United Progressive Alliance (UPA) move to assure the Left that the operationalisation of the nuclear deal - negotiating the safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) - has been held up falls in this category.

Obviously the UPA leadership has concluded that the present is not the appropriate time to have a break with the Left and go for an election. The UPA would like to have more time to get ready for the polls.

It is now clear that the issue with the Left parties, on whose parliamentary support Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government depends for its survival, is just not nuclear deal but the entire gamut of foreign policy pursued by the Singh government. The Left has also major differences with the UPA on various economic and infrastructure development policies. Finance Minister P Chidambaram explained that he could not bring up some of the reform legislation where he felt they would not get through for want of adequate support, obviously from the Communists.

Since May 2004, there are three major autonomous players in the Indian domestic political arena - the Congress, the BJP and the Left. Though polling only five per cent of the country's popular vote and controlling some 11 per cent of Lok Sabha membership, the Left was able to exercise its power on a national scale. It was able to slow down the pace of Manmohan Singh's reform programmes, which it could not have done if it had not been lending support to the UPA in the Lok Sabha.

The Left has ideological contradiction with both the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the UPA. It is opposed to the NDA's Hindutva ideology as well as its economic and social policies. With the Congress it has fundamental differences going back to the days of Indian independence on economic and social policies.

The agreement to support the UPA in Parliament did not in anyway reduce the dimensions of the basic ideological divide. If the Manmohan Singh government were to prove effective in its reforms programme and become more popular, that would not be in the long-term interest of the Left. Poverty alleviation and job creation are likely to reduce the constituency of communist ideology. Therefore, it was logical for the Left to halt the UPA before it made significant gains in electoral terms.

The nuclear deal and foreign policy were chosen as the issues to test the spine of the UPA. These are not real issues. If they were so the Left could have withdrawn support when India, concluded the defence framework agreement with the US or signed the joint declaration with the US on July 18, 2005. The Left did not do so because it hoped that the nuclear deal would not come through and Manmohan Singh and the UPA would get humiliated.

The left parties allowed the negotiations to proceed forward till the 123 draft was initiated. Only then did they come to realise that this would increase the UPA's popularity and also of Manmohan Singh. They very rightly assessed that for the smaller parties of the UPA, a few more months in office would be more important than the national interest. For the UPA, given the tendency of our political parties to play the domestic balance of power politics, the crucial problem is to sustain the UPA through the next elections.

The contradictions between the Left and the UPA will not go away. Emboldened by its seeming victory on the nuclear issue the Left is likely to come in the way of every measure that would increase the popularity of the UPA in the next 12-14 months. Since the Left will be fighting elections opposing the Congress and the UPA, the break between the UPA and the Left will have to come sooner or later in the next few months.

Meanwhile, the Hyde Act and the 123 agreement draft will continue to survive. The international community and the IAEA are interested in getting India into the global non-proliferation regime. The nuclear reactors are running short of fuel and shutting down.

If not this government, a successor government can resurrect the deal and get it through. It passed the US Congress with impressive bipartisan majority. Therefore a change in the US administration may not make all that difference.

The charge that India will become a junior partner of the US is a laughable one. Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, France and Germany have all demonstrated that they can disagree with the US in spite of their close relationship with Washington. In the light of that, the fear of Indian subordination to the US only reflects a lack of self-confidence of those who entertain such fears.

(K Subrahmanyam is a strategic expert. He can be contacted at ambimani@gmail.com)