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The Left’s concession

The Left haven’t opened a window for the Indo-US nuclear deal. They’ve only tantalized its supporters. And they know this full well, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Nov 18, 2007 11:42 IST

What does the Left decision to permit the Government to go to the IAEA and negotiate an India-specific safeguards agreement amount to? Is it a credible window of opportunity to secure the Indo-US nuclear deal? Or will it simply make it easier for the Government to defy the Left, assuming, of course, it is of a mind to do so? I think it’s the latter. But that would still be a lot if the Government is determined to clinch the deal.

Recall carefully what the Left has permitted. The Government can start negotiations with the IAEA but must get the Left’s approval of the concluded safeguards before they are initialled. This condition is critical. Initialling would freeze the document and conclude the negotiation even though formal signing would remain. But an uninitialled document is still subject to change. It remains incomplete. In all probability such a document would be insufficient for the NSG stage. There is a view that accompanied by a letter from ElBaradei, the Director General of the IAEA, stating that he’s satisfied with the ‘agreed’ terms, it could pass muster with the NSG but I think that’s unduly optimistic. Remember the NSG has a few sceptics who need to be won over to India’s case (New Zealand, the Scandinavian countries, perhaps Japan, possibly Australia and Austria) and it has to decide by consensus. An incomplete and untidily negotiated safeguards could be sufficient for one or more NSG members to throw a spanner in the works.

So clearly the Left haven’t opened a window for the deal. They’ve only tantalized its supporters. And they know this full well. This is why they claim that what they’re giving the Government is an honourable exit. But what they have done is reduce the risk inherent in any defiance of the Left. In fact, I would add, they’ve done that appreciably whilst also making it more difficult for the government to walk away from the deal. The combination could amount to a self goal.

Consider first the Government’s position when it finishes the IAEA negotiation satisfied it has a good deal. If at that point the Left says ‘nyet’, with what face can the Government back off? After all, its negotiators will have just told the IAEA they are happy with what they’ve achieved. A u-turn, even if under political compulsion, would be embarrassing if not humiliating. Consequently the cost of backing-out will be substantially greater.

Now consider what will happen if the Government defies the Left and goes ahead. Prior to this permission, the Government ran the risk that the IAEA may refuse to do business with it on the grounds it had lost its parliamentary majority and with it the claim to represent the Indian people and make commitments on their behalf. This created the spectre that the UPA could lose the government but also fail to get the deal. That was the nightmare scenario.

Now this permission ensures that the entire negotiation will happen with a government whose bona fides cannot be questioned. It’s only at the point of initialling — and freezing — an agreed document that doubt could creep in. And at that point, if the Government chooses to defy the Left, the risk would be a lot less. For one, I doubt if at this last moment the IAEA would balk. Indeed I believe the Government has a specific assurance to this effect from Washington. And thereafter the Americans would take over. The Government would have nothing more to do.

The question is has the Government got the guts to defy the Left and clinch the deal? It all turns on what it values more — clinging to office till May 2009 or securing “an historic initiative” with “major gains” for India? Incidentally, those are the Prime Minister’s words.

By the way, given that the UPA-Left tie-up will cease two or three months before the elections, so they can campaign separately and against each other, we’re only talking of another 14 months or so. So what’s more important — 14 months in office or the nuclear deal?