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Then watchdog, now poodle

If the government is to realise the monumental folly of its decision to sacrifice the deal in order to cling to office for 18 months more, its either now or never, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Oct 21, 2007 00:05 IST

This is perhaps the last Sunday to advise the government on the Indo-US Nuclear Deal. Tomorrow, the UPA-Left Committee will meet again. Thereafter it could be too late. So if the government is to realise the monumental folly of its decision to sacrifice the deal in order to cling to office for 18 months more, its either now or never.

Two months ago Manmohan Singh described the 123 Agreement as “an honourable deal which enlarges India’s development options”. Speaking in Parliament he called it “an historic initiative” that brought “major gains for India”. He called it “a shining example of how far we have progressed” and added “it is another step in our journey to regain our due place in global councils”. His conclusion: “When future generations look back, they will come to acknowledge the significance of this historic deal.”

On the 7th of this month Sonia Gandhi spoke yet more decisively. “The opponents of the Indo-US nuclear deal are anti-development, prosperity and peace. We should all join hands in giving them a strong response … such elements are not only the enemies of Congress but they are also the enemies of progress and development.” Yet today Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi have eaten their words and swallowed their pride because the Left threatened to withdraw support. What was the worst that could have happened? An election. And how would Congress have fared? If the polls are to be believed, it would have crossed 200! Paradoxically, it’s the Left and the BJP who would have lost seats.

It was a small risk — for the party — in return for a huge gain — for the country. But Singh and Gandhi seem to have funked it. Instead, it seems they’ve chosen to cling to power for 18 months and forsake the deal. If this is how it ends up, history will remember them as two leaders who put themselves and their party before the country.

This was India’s chance to become internationally accepted as a nuclear weapon power. To gain access to dual-use technologies essential for fields as diverse as agriculture and weather-forecasting. And to develop a modern, efficient and reliable civil nuclear energy industry. All of this was possible because George Bush was prepared to unravel four decades of non-proliferation legislation to create an opening for India. If we let it pass, will any of his successors offer a similar opportunity? Unlikely and almost certainly not if it’s Hillary Clinton. In fact, Sharad Pawar claims she’s said as much.

But that’s not all. We’ve spent a year canvassing for the deal in international capitals. Now the government looks silly. We want to be elevated to the UN Security Council and considered a powerful nation, but hereafter who will be prepared to rely on us? Certainly not the Americans. In fact, even Musharraf, if he survives, could have serious second thoughts!

Domestically, it’s worse. After capitulating to the Left, can the UPA hope to stand up next time? I doubt it. This government has already submitted over disinvestment, insurance caps and the choice of President. This was its last chance to stand up. If even now it won’t, then power will lie not with the PM or the super-PM but the CPM!

Finally, consider Manmohan Singh. His credibility lies in his convictions and his capacity for upholding them. Yet at this most crucial test he’s crumbled. Convenience has replaced commitment. But, actually, it’s even worse. Although a political novice, we admired him because of the difference. So if the deal is lost I could have sworn he would resign. Yet, even that he now seems unwilling to do. The lure of office has turned the amateur into a professional politician! I’m reminded of what Sitaram Yechuri said to me in 2004. The Left, he claimed, saw itself as the watchdog of the government. It would bark and, if need be, even bite. Three years later the roles have reversed. The government has transformed into Mr. Karat’s poodle.