The dragging standoff between the government and its Left allies ended on Thursday with ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) agreeing to put on hold the operationalisation of the India-US nuclear deal till a political panel comes out with its findings on the pact.
The dramatic breakthrough came after a series of meetings through the day between UPA and Left leaders, among UPA leaders and among Left leaders, and also within the Congress hierarchy including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
<b1>In the evening, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee announced that a joint committee of UPA and Left representatives would look into "certain aspects of the bilateral agreement, the implications of the Hyde Act on the 123 agreement (between New Delhi and Washington) and (on) self-reliance in the nuclear sector, the implications of the nuclear agreement on foreign policy and security cooperation.
"The operationalisation of the deal will take into account the committee's findings," said Mukherjee, who came out of the prime minister's 7, Race Course Road residence accompanied by Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) politburo member Sitaram Yechury.
Mukherjee and Yechury have taken the lead in most of the key close-door discussions that finally buried what turned out to be the worst political crisis for the Congress-led UPA government since it took power in May 2004.
At one stage of the standoff, it almost seemed as if the Left, with its crucial 60-odd seats in the Lok Sabha, was set to withdraw support to the government.
However, confusion continues over the definition of "operationalisation".
The Left claimed that this meant that all the negotiations on implementing the deal were now on hold. But Congress sources said the formation of the committee was meant to buy more time from the Left to convince them about the desirability of the nuclear deal - and that its so-called freeze was temporary.
Amid the confusion, both sides claimed victory. Forward Bloc leader G Devarajan told IANS that the government had assured them that no negotiations would take place until the concerns voiced by the communists were addressed.
"The nuclear deal is on hold. We are satisfied," CPI-M general secretary Prakash Karat announced at his party headquarters.
The decision to form the UPA-Left committee was finalised after four hours of discussions at the prime minister's office in parliament house.
Besides Manmohan Singh, those who attended the meeting included Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Mukherjee, Defence Minister AK Antony, Congress leader Ahmed Patel apart from Manmohan Singh. Yechury joined them later.
After the meeting, Yechury conveyed the government's decisions to a hurriedly convened meeting of the four-party Left grouping. The formal announcement came after the UPA-Left meeting at the prime minister's residence.
The government was not forthcoming about the status of the scheduled discussions with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) next month on India-specific safeguards.
Left leaders argued that the government decision to hold the operationalisation of the deal would put the future of the agreement into uncertainty.
"The government cannot proceed with any negotiations. Even if it goes ahead with the talks, New Delhi will not be in a position to press for it forcefully as there is internal opposition. No country will be ready to take it seriously," a Left leader told IANS.
The Left parties have said that Indian officials could attend the IAEA board meeting as it has in the past but there should be no talks on India-specific on nuclear safeguards.
This stand of the Left is worrying a section of the government, which says this would only mean that the path-breaking deal is more or less scrapped.
But Congress and official sources do not agree with the general assessment that an end of the Bush presidency would automatically kill the nuclear pact unless India goes ahead with it now.
"If we can make Bush agree to this, we can also persuade the Democrats if they win the presidential elections," said a senior Congress leader. "But we know it may not be that easy."
(Inputs by Sutirtho Patranobis and Saroj Nagi)