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Nuke deal and the prime minister's dilemma

By Neerja Chowdhury
June 24, 2008 12:29 IST
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has upped the ante again on the India-US nuclear deal. He is reported to have told Congress party President Sonia Gandhi that he would find it difficult to continue as prime minister if the government did not go ahead with the deal. That his media advisor chose 'neither to deny nor confirm' these reports showed that the prime minister wanted this impression to be reinforced.

It is hardly a secret that Dr Singh has staked his personal prestige on the nuclear deal, and would like it operationalised. But he is not unaware of the constraints of his government and had to eat his words on earlier occasions. Last year, he had to climb down after he had given a similar ultimatum to the Left parties -- that if they went ahead and withdrew support, so be it.

The prime minister may be pushing his luck again because he may have sensed that Sonia Gandhi is much more in favour of the deal than was the case earlier. Sonia's out-of-the-blue statement in Guwahati on June 13, that nuclear energy was vital in view of the global surge in oil prices, was seen as a straw in the wind. It could not just be a speechwriter getting carried away. It is possible that Sonia has been influenced by son Rahul, who is putting his weight behind the deal.

Suddenly last week, Congress leaders started to see the benefits of early polls. Everyone knows that going ahead with the deal would mean withdrawal of support by the Left parties and the possibility of early general elections.

Congress leaders argued that it would be better for the party to cut its losses and face the public now because the situation was going to get worse and things might be electorally worse in April 2009. Oil prices will have to hiked and it was not possible to keep a lid on them for very long. Moreover, the forecast for the monsoon is good, which will help.

The polls, the argument went, might in any case be held in February, for there was nothing to stop the Election Commission from announcing them anytime within six months of the date by which the new government had to be installed. After all, the EC had advanced polls in Himachal Pradesh without a recommendation from the state government. Therefore, it was only a matter of advancing them by two or three months.

Why give the impression that to hang onto power for a couple of months, the Congress wanted to give up the deal which it had billed to be in national interest? It was anyway time to call the Left's 'bluff' and put an end to its 'blackmailing' tactics, they say.

Yes, a section of Muslims may turn against the Congress if it was seen to be going in for strategic partnership with the US, but then the Muslims were not with the Congress anyway in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. In states like Madhya Pradesh, where the Congress is pitted against the Bharatiya Janata Party, they would have no choice but to go with the Congress.

These and more arguments were reeled out and suddenly it seemed that the Congress had everything going for it, if it plumped for polls right away.

Two things have, however, thrown a spanner in the works for the prime minister and the Congress. One is the United Progressive Alliance allies. The Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Nationalist Congress Party and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam are not opposing the deal, having been part of the Cabinet decision to go ahead with it -- but they do not want early elections.

It is possible that the Samajawadi Party may come to the Congress' rescue, after the Left parties pull the plug. If the Congress gets the support of the Samajwadi Party and some smaller parties it may survive and be able to ink the deal. However, External Affairs Minister and senior Congress leader Pranab Mukherjee has made it clear that a minority government cannot sign an international treaty.

Though Samajwadi leaders have made favourable noises about the deal, it remains to be seen whether the party finally risks antagonising a section of Muslims, particularly now that Mayawati has withdrawn support to the UPA.

The second development is the hike in the inflation rate, which jumped to 11.05 percent last Friday. This is actually much higher if you take into account the services sector, like school fees or medical charges, or travel costs, all of which have gone up. That is why families are feeling the pinch way beyond the official figure and are agitated. The poor who have no wage indexation are badly affected.

This confronts the prime minister -- and indeed the Congress -- with a new situation. If Dr Singh goes ahead with his threat and resigns, he would be seen to be running away from a difficult situation. And it would be said that when the challenge came to deal with a difficult situation, he used the nuke deal to put in his papers.

The same would be said of the Congress, if it subjected the country to 4 to 5 months of a caretaker government. A lameduck government would not be able to exert the requisite authority to get the better of a difficult economic situation. The Congress would then invite the charge of mismanagement of the economy. And this would be no small charge for a party which has prided itself on its experience and expertise in governance. It would do nothing for its image or its electoral prospects.

The strategy of Mukherjee, the chief interlocutor between the UPA and the Left, has been to buy time to try and stave off the crisis. The June 18 meeting was first postponed to June 25 and now to June 28.

The idea was to go to the International Atomic Energy Agency in the third week of September. The foreign office is believed to have let it be known that this was the 'final' deadline for going to IAEA. It may therefore be possible to postpone the moment of reckoning till early October -- that is if an understanding can be worked out with US President George W Bush that the 'lameduck' United States Congress would give its consent to the deal in December.

In that case, it may be possible to hold general elections in February, which is more or less on schedule, and may satisfy the UPA allies. Dr Manmohan Singh may be able to continue as prime minister. And the highly-cautious Sonia Gandhi would not have to find a replacement for Dr Singh in an election year when prices are spinning out of control.

Either way, early elections or polls on schedule, the scenarios before the Congress promise a choppy ride ahead.

Neerja Chowdhury