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Nuclear deal or no deal?

The Left believes the IAEA clearance may require only 72 hours. It’s aware the government has already done a lot of the spadework, writes Karan Thapar.
None | By Karan Thapar
UPDATED ON OCT 14, 2007 01:27 AM IST

Let me be simple and straightforward. If you want to understand the future of the Indo-US nuclear deal you need to consider four critical facts. The analysis that follows is distilled from conversations with Left leaders, in particular the CPI’s AB Bardhan.

First, the reason why the Left is adamant the government must not initiate formal talks with the IAEA is because this is the last point at which they can stop the deal. Once it sails — or sneaks — past the Agency there is no further intervention required by the Indian government. The Americans will pilot it through the NSG and the Bush administration will secure the final up-down vote from Congress. The IAEA stage is the only point at which the Left can obstruct its passage.

The Left believes that IAEA’s clearance might only require 72 hours. It’s aware the government has done a lot of the spadework through informal contacts and non-papers. Equally importantly, it acknowledges that despite the tricky nature of the fuel supplies assurance India wants, the rest of the safeguards are routine stuff. It doesn’t believe the IAEA will fall back on the 45 days clearance option. This reinforces the need to pull the plug as soon as the government approaches the IAEA.

Second, when the Left withdraws support the government will enter what they call ‘a grey area’. This is the interregnum between the Left informing the President and any test on the floor of the House to prove the government is a minority. During this stage, there may be doubts about the legitimacy of the government but no certainty. Therefore the government can — or, at least, can claim — to function normally.

The question is, will the IAEA accept a government in this predicament as a credible representative of India? The Left hopes it won’t but isn’t sure. If the IAEA has doubts, it will balk at concluding a safeguards agreement. If not, the deal is through.

Third, how late can the government leave the start of negotiations with the IAEA without endangering the schedule for all the other steps that must follow? This will determine how long the present UPA-Left confabulation continues. The government has shared the timeline with the Left but neither side has made it public. A safe date would be the end of October but it could stretch to early December. If by then, the government hasn’t initiated talks with the Agency, then it won’t leave itself enough time to pass the NSG and the US Congress before the mood in America is overwhelmed by elections.

So sometime soon after the UPA-Left meeting on the 22nd, the government has to take its courage in its hands. At that point the Left will withdraw support, the government will enter the grey area and the focus will shift to how the IAEA responds.

Fourth, the Left is gambling the government hasn’t got the gumption to do this. The government says it has. But, asks the Left, is that bluff and bluster? The reason this could be crucial is because if the government falls, the Left will also suffer. In the election that follows, they will lose seats. The biggest loser could be Karat’s CPM. So, even if it’s pushing it, the Left doesn’t want the government to fall!

At this point of apparent contradiction, which has greater force — the Left’s instinct to preserve its numbers or its desire to protect its ideological purity? I don’t know. I’ve tried to discover but each conversation suggests a different conclusion.

In A.B. Bardhan’s assessment only four outcomes are possible: first, the government survives and the deal goes through; second, the government falls and the deal goes through; third, the deal is lost but the government survives; and, fourth, the government falls and the deal is also forsaken. The Left claims it’s the fourth possibility that’s paralysing the government. But it’s also true the second possibility has the Left petrified. Which will it be?

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