Read between the lines
Neither the Left nor the UPA want to go to the polls with the N- deal as the principal campaign issue. It doesn’t strike a popular chord, writes Karan Thapar.
How should we interpret the understanding between the UPA government and the Left parties on the 123 Agreement? Is it a clear — or even a suggestive — victory for one side? Or is it a deliberate, perhaps artful, fudge, where dextrous ambiguity has permitted both parties space? And what will this lead to: a second political crisis or the conclusion of the Indo-US 123?
Let’s start with the statement they issued. A committee has been set up to examine various aspects of the 123 Agreement. The critical sentence claims “the operationalisation of the deal will take into account the committee’s findings”. Two questions arise: (a) what does operationalisation mean? Does it mean the same thing to both sides? and (b) what does “take into account” imply?
For the Left, operationalisation is “the next step” i.e., negotiations with the IAEA to conclude India-specific safeguards. This much is clear. But for the Government, operationalisation won’t happen till after the IAEA and the NSG negotiations, when the US Congress finally ratifies the 123 and the two governments sign the agreement. That’s a fair way off. Both sides know they mean different things and both are happy with this ambiguity. It’s deliberate and its designed to give them space.
Now turn to the phrase “take into account”. It doesn’t mean ‘to change’ ones mind or ‘reverse’ ones thinking but simply ‘bearing in mind’ an opposite or conflicting viewpoint whilst continuing with your own. For instance, the question ‘have you considered what will happen if you insist on going ahead?’ could be answered ‘yes, I have taken that into account’ and still permit the respondent to do what he thinks of it. But, equally, the answer ‘taking into account what you’ve said, I’ve changed my mind’ is also a plausible response. So, once again, the phrase permits both outcomes. It’s deliberately ambiguous.
Now, examine the CPM’s statement of August 18. It says: “till all the objections are considered and the implications of the Hyde Act evaluated, the Government should not take the next step …”. The important words are ‘considered’ and ‘evaluated’. They call for analysis of the objections and implications, not their removal or resolution. Doesn’t this offer some guidance as to how we should interpret the phrase ‘take into account’?
So has the pause button been pressed? Abani Roy of the RSP, perhaps the most hard-line of the four Left allies, is unwilling to say yes. He’s accepted that talks with the IAEA will go ahead whilst the UPA-Left hold their deliberations. Of course, Karat, Bardhan and Yechury are saying something else. But remember, they helped craft the language that permits Abani Roy’s interpretation!
Now the critical question: what would happen if the committee finishes its work but the Left’s objections remain. Who knows, is the honest answer. But what’s certain is that the political crisis we saw in August will reappear. The only chance that it won’t is if, in the interim, the Government can offer the Left concessions in other areas to make the swallowing of the nuclear deal palatable.
Will this second crisis lead to the immediate fall of the Government? I doubt it. Neither the Left nor the UPA want to go to the polls with the nuclear deal as the principal campaign issue. It doesn’t strike a popular chord. They’ll wait for a more emotional issue but it won’t take them long to find.
Meanwhile, will the nuclear deal go through? I’d say yes. For two reasons: first, having pushed matters to the brink, the government has nothing to gain and everything to forfeit if, on top of losing office, it loses the deal as well. Second, this outcome could also suit the Left. If an election is inevitable the Left needs an issue to distinguish itself from the UPA. After three years of supporting the government, it needs to quickly define the difference. What better issue could there be?
So I’m not as pessimistic as the rest of the press. On this occasion the silver lining is the cloud!