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Home / Analysis / The inside story of the nuclear deal | Analysis

The inside story of the nuclear deal | Analysis

Manmohan Singh’s quiet leadership drove the pact. Sonia Gandhi played a key supportive role

analysis Updated: Feb 17, 2020, 18:16 IST
Montek Singh Ahluwalia
Montek Singh Ahluwalia
Leading from the front was particularly important because many in the Congress were ambivalent about the deal
Leading from the front was particularly important because many in the Congress were ambivalent about the deal(Sunil Saxena/Hindustan Times)

One of the most significant achievements of Manmohan Singh was the conclusion of the Indo-US (United States) nuclear agreement in UPA (United Progressive Alliance) 1. PM Manmohan Singh rightly believed that the non-proliferation regime had imposed a ‘nuclear apartheid’ on India and it would be a major long-term gain for our economy if we could get these restrictions lifted...

...We knew the agreement would be criticized at home. The Left parties were opposed to any closeness to the US and would oppose the agreement on principle. The BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) would criticize the Government for accepting too many conditions...

...In October 2007, Sonia Gandhi asked me to come and see her.She had never done this before, so I was naturally curious. She said Prakash Karat had told her categorically that if we proceeded with the deal, the Left would withdraw support. She also said the PM had told her that the Left would keep badgering the Government and if we were to be pushed to the polls in any case, it was better if it happened earlier rather than later. The PM was concerned that if we had a bad monsoon next year, the economic situation could deteriorate, reducing the scope for manoeuvre, and it was best to move quickly. She also told me that he had offered to resign and let her reshuffle the leadership at the top if she wanted. She wanted me to urge the PM not to resign. He had the full weight of her support and that of the party, but neither the party nor the allies wanted an early election.

Sonia Gandhi said she did not think the nuclear deal was an issue on which to risk an early election. I agreed with her that this was not the time for the PM to force an election. In fact, I pointed out that in the course of the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit in Delhi a few weeks earlier, an aggressive questioner, referring to the opposition to the nuclear deal, asked whether the deal was being abandoned. The PM himself had responded by saying we were not a ‘one-issue’ government. She asked me to brief the PM on our conversation and convey to him that this was not the time to resign.

I reported the conversation to the PM, including my view, and pointed out that the public did not fully understand the benefits of the nuclear deal and a much stronger effort was needed to educate public opinion. I felt we had not adequately emphasized that the waiver from the NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group), which prohibited members from engaging in nuclear trade with any country that was not a signatory of the NPT (Non Proliferation Treaty), would not just open the door for the US to collaborate with India but allow such collaboration with other countries. In effect, by helping us obtain an NSG waiver, the US would be opening many doors for us that would otherwise remain completely closed. He did not reveal his mind in our conversation but I was happy to find that he did not resign at that time.

Meanwhile, the Left hardened its position...By February, the Left parties said the Government would have to choose between the nuclear deal and its own stability, setting a deadline of 15 March for the Government to indicate its intentions. The Left knew the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) safeguards agreement was an essential step before the US Congress could approve the 123 Agreement, so it concentrated its efforts on preventing the Government from going to the IAEA.

On 25 June 2008, Sonia Gandhi again asked me to come and see her. She said she had been told by many people that the PM was thinking of resigning and it would be a disaster for the party if he did, as none of the allies were keen on an early election. My response on this occasion was different from a year earlier. I had agreed then that it was premature to risk an election on this issue but now felt the situation had changed. The issues involved had been adequately explained in public and we had reached a point where the credibility of the Government would be affected if we appeared paralysed by a Left veto. I informed her that I had already told the PM that the right course, in my view, was to go to the IAEA and take the risk of the Left pulling out. She heard me out and asked me to convey the gist of our conversation and her views to the PM, which I did that very day.

I have no idea whether they discussed the issue further but we know that the PM stood firm and sent the draft agreement to the IAEA shortly before leaving for a G8 meeting in Japan in early July.

True to its word, the Left withdrew support on 8 July. The PM sought a vote of confidence in the House on 10 July. It was tense as both the Left and the BJP were on the same side. The opposition from the Left was not a surprise but the opposition from the BJP was mystifying. Brajesh Mishra, former principal secretary and national security advisor to PM Vajpayee, had supported the deal. The PM told me that he had also spoken to former PM (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee explaining that what the Government had done was the logical culmination of the efforts at rapprochement begun by him. He said Vajpayee seemed to agree but expressed helplessness...

...Fortunately, the Samajwadi Party, led by Mulayam Singh, came to the rescue. Manmohan Singh told me later that he had asked former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, one of the team of scientists that had supervised the nuclear test in 1998, to speak to Mulayam and persuade him of the merits of the nuclear deal. Kalam’s support was critical in getting the Samajwadi Party to support the Government on this occasion...

...Manmohan Singh’s quiet leadership was the critical driving force that made the nuclear agreement a success. He put together a team of key players and got them to cooperate and be part of the consensus that evolved. Leading from the front was particularly important because many in the Congress party were ambivalent about the deal. They worried about the political consequences of seeming to get too close to the US, because they feared loss of support from the Left and were also concerned that closeness to the US would alienate Muslim voters. At critical points, the PM had to mobilize political support from outside the party, such as from Dr Kalam who spoke to Mulayam to support the Government. The PM was able to navigate the choppy political waters with skill and patience and keep his party on board. He certainly could not have achieved this without the support of Sonia Gandhi who was fully aware of the party’s ambivalence.

Montek Singh Ahluwalia is former Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission of India.These are edited excerpts from his recent book, Backstage: The Story Behind India’s High Growth Years
The views expressed are personal
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