Communist Party of India-Marxist General Secretary Prakash Karat is itching for an exit from the four-year arrangement where 60 Left MPs support the UPA government from the outside, but wants to ensure that neither his party nor he become a hate figure for destabilising the government and forcing an early general election on the country.
The Left supported the UPA mainly to keep the Bharatiya Janata Party out of power and that purpose was well served for four years. Karat wants to convey to the nation that he is not a destabiliser and would like political chroniclers to believe that he will stand up for his Marxist convictions, no matter what the pressure on him to resile from his position.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is more than a match for the stubborn Karat. He is impatient to get out of the UPA alliance with the Left parties even if his government loses power and the country heads for an election. He believes that American economic and technological assistance to India is good for the country's development. His team wants to make a beginning towards this objective through the nuclear deal.
With this belief in mind, Dr Singh cannot abide what the Left parties stand for. This modest man with his gentle looks is kind enough to not proclaim that the Left ideology is dangerous for India's growth. He has an ideological score to settle with Karat. He would like to call the Left parties's bluff by resigning as prime minister and earning the nation's respect for standing up for the issues he believes in.
On June 24, a former American advisor to US Ambassador to India David Mulford on the nuclear deal asked an Indian guest over lunch at an Asia Society seminar on Indian financial markets in New York, "Can you believe this deal is not done just because Karat doesn't like America? Can you believe this?" he asked with shock.
It would be wrong to say that Karat opposed the nuclear deal because his Marxist views are anti-American. No pro-China or anti-American lobby opposed Atal Bihari Vajpayee's National Democratic Alliance government to have discussions with then US deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott on the NSSP (Next Steps in Strategic Partnership). The crisis is brewing not just because Karat is anti-American, but mainly because Left MPs keep the UPA government in power and can easily turn it into a minority.
This crucial factor was not factored in or ignored when Dr Singh met US President George W Bush at the White House on July 18, 2005.
The root of the current crisis is not just about Dr Singh's right-wing politics versus Karat's leftist ideology. The vigour for combat in the Left parties is due to its numbers in Parliament. This fact cannot be glossed over by branding the Left parties as Chinese agents or anti-American.
Surely, both Dr Singh and Karat's rigid ideological positions add fuel to the fire, but the roots of the current crisis lie in two errors of judgement.
One, the US State Department in Washington, DC made the Himalayan error in calculating that Prime Minister Singh could get convincing political support at home for the nuclear deal. Of course, that did not happen -- not from the Left parties nor the the BJP, which began the process for a better Indian relationship with the US. Without the Left votes in the Lok Sabha, Dr Singh's government is in a minority.
Second, minus the aura of a popular leader, the prime minister carried a higher risk in a battleground full of populist leaders. In his endeavour to take the nuclear deal to its logical conclusion Dr Singh needed to give a populist spin to his action, but this is not within his expertise.
The position of the political parties in the Lok Sabha on July 18, 2005 was clear enough to understand that the Left parties would have their say in any matter related to India-US strategic ties. Supporters of the deal underestimated the importance of the numbers game in Parliament. They also overlooked the Indian public's belief in the need for a nuclear arsenal for national security.
To the BJP's surprise, the State Department took the moral high ground on issuing a US visa to Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Though Modi is the right wing leader of a state with a people who frequently display pro-American sentiments, his party and he oppose the nuclear deal. When Modi was denied a US visa the BJP had one more reason to take a tough stand against US diplomacy in India. Dr Singh could not win the support of the BJP which would probably have ended up with a much weaker nuclear deal from the Americans during its tenure in power.
US diplomats in New Delhi recently met a senior BJP leader to garner the party's support for the deal. After hearing the Americans out, the BJP leader asked the Americans, "But what about the visa for our leader Modi? What do you want to say about that?" The Americans had no answer.
Dr Singh is not a practising politician and that made his position weaker with both the UPA allies, its supporters and the Opposition. The prime minister took a gamble thinking that legally and technically he did not need Parliament's support for ratifying the nuclear agreement since it is within the ambit of executive decisions. He tried to put up a remarkable fight within the government, national politics and the media over the issue. A diplomat, who was involved in scripting the nuclear deal, once told this correspondent that the prime minister does not waver in the pursuit of his goal.
Once Dr Singh decides that he wants to reach a certain destination he has the patience to reach the goal even if that means taking the longest possible route. He did that at many levels. The Prime Minister's Office managed the retired diplomat and scientific communities which were initially opposed to the agreement; it also convinced editors and other opinion-makers about the need for the deal.
To win over the Left parties he formed a coordination committee and asked External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee to keep the Communists in check.
UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi was not aware of the entire dimension of the nuclear deal when it was announced at the White House on July 18, 2005. Dr Singh and others -- including the lobby who would like to invest in the nuclear power industry which needs more than Rs 3 billion of fresh funds -- convinced her that the deal was appreciated by the middle class. The PMO is trying to convince her that there are international repercussions to the agreement and in reality the deal is a non-issue for the aam aadmi, but urban voters favour it.
Congress leaders have calculated that it is time for Karat to return to his loyal voter base. For the Left parties it is now time to oppose the UPA government seriously. The mock fights will end soon and the real opposition to the government's policies should begin. Last winter, Karat took the political decision to allow the government to go in for negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency. It suited him at that point of time because the CPI-M was seriously rattled by the violence in Nandigram, West Bengal, and the ensuing Panchayat election in the state.
It is now clear that Karat's gameplan to exit from the arrangement with the UPA is ready and he is all set to implement it.
Dr Singh believes Sonia Gandhi has to strike before Karat makes his move to seize the political advantage. Sunday's CPI-M Politburo meeting will empower Karat to take a final decision on the timing of the rupture with the UPA. After keeping a safe distance from the politics of the deal Sonia Gandhi has been showing a recent inclination to support the agreement her government is itching to sign.
Sonia Gandhi and Karat will orchestrate an exit plan while the prime minister anxiously waits to know how well he has played his politics over the nuclear deal.