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POLITICS-INDIA: Ruling Coalition Rift Over US Nuke Deal Continues

Praful Bidwai

NEW DELHI, Aug 28 2007 (IPS) - Confronted with stiff opposition to the United States-India nuclear cooperation deal from the supporting parties of the Left, Manmohan Singh’s minority government has initiated talks with communist leaders to create a ‘mechanism’ to resolve mutual differences.

However, the talks have not yet produced agreement on the mechanism, barring acceptance that it should be a committee of political leaders which can invite scientists and other experts for consultations. Nor is it clear that the government will put on hold further steps for completing and implementing the deal, as the Left demands.

The committee will discuss objections to the nuclear deal raised by the Left on the ground that it will draw India into the U.S. strategic orbit. It will also examine to what extent a law on nuclear cooperation with India, passed last December by the U.S. Congress, called the Henry J. Hyde Act, meets India’s concerns about sovereign control over its nuclear activities.

Unless agreement is reached on these thorny issues, the Left has warned of “serious political consequences” if Singh’s United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government goes ahead with deal. The Left parties’ 59 MPs are crucial for the government’s survival in the 543-member lower house of Parliament.

It is not clear if the Left will go to the extent of withdrawing support to the UPA, leave alone vote against it and topple it. Under India’s Constitution, an international treaty or agreement does not need Parliament’s approval for ratification. A cabinet resolution is enough.

But withdrawal of support by the Left will seriously weaken the Congress party-led UPA and possibly lead to elections well before the Singh government completes its five-year term in May 2009.

Talks on setting up the “mechanism”, being conducted between the government and each of the four main Left parties, are expected to be completed in the next few days.

Whatever their outcome, it is plain that the fate of the nuclear deal in India hangs on its domestic politics.

Meanwhile, indications of qualified support for the deal have come from an unexpected quarter: the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, the main opposition group.

On Sunday, BJP veteran and leader of the Opposition L.K. Advani told the influential ‘Indian Express’ newspaper that his party would have no objection to the nuclear deal if the government amends domestic laws to ensure India’s strategic autonomy and continuity in supplies of nuclear fuel for Indian reactors.

Advani has been keen to distance the traditionally pro-U.S. BJP from the Left, which opposes a “strategic partnership” between the U.S. and India.

He criticised the Left for its “anti-Americanism” and said: “So far as the BJP is concerned, … we have no objection to a strategic partnership with the U.S. This includes the forthcoming joint naval exercises”.

Starting Sep. 4, the Indian navy is due to hold large-scale exercises off India’s east coast, involving 20 ships from the U.S., Australia, Japan, Singapore and India. The U.S. alone is sending in 13 warships and the Left has decided to protest against them strongly.

Ironically, what might get the BJP to support the deal is a formula proposed by a Communist Party (Marxist-CPM) leader.

Under this formula, the Indian government would insure itself against a sudden termination of nuclear cooperation by the U.S. or other countries by enacting a “domestic Hyde Act”. This would prohibit the transfer of imported nuclear equipment or material out of India if such transfer affects the continuous operation of Indian reactors.

Such an arrangement would take care of the Indian concern that the U.S. might suddenly stop nuclear supplies if India conducts a nuclear test, and that Washington would have the right to demand the return of nuclear equipment and material exported to India. This is mandated by domestic U.S. laws, including the Hyde Act.

“This is nuclear nationalism, which links national sovereignty with the possession of mass-destruction weapons and one’s unhampered ability to amass them,” says M.V. Ramana, an independent nuclear expert based in Bangalore. “This is an unhealthy, even dangerous, doctrine. But unfortunately, it has become the dominant public discourse in India. Even the Left does not demarcate itself sharply from it.”

India’s Left parties criticise the nuclear deal primarily on two grounds: it will undermine independence in foreign and security policy-making through India’s strategic embrace of the U.S., and it will erode India’s autonomy in running her nuclear programme, including the freedom to test nuclear weapons.

It is only peripherally or in passing that the Indian Left mentions the nuclear deal for its likely negative regional and global impact on disarmament and peace, and for its promotion of nuclear power, a highly controversial, hazardous and unpopular form of energy generation.

“This is a deeply contradictory position,” adds Ramana. “The Left alone among India’s political parties condemned the 1998 nuclear blasts and demanded that India and Pakistan roll back their weapons programmes. The Left parties also oppose further nuclear testing. So it’s sad that they should now pander to nuclear nationalism by criticising the nuclear deal on grounds of sovereignty.”

However, it is not clear that the Left parties will carry out the implicit threat to withdraw support to the UPA if the Alliance pushes ahead with the deal.

Collectively, the Left’s leadership is under twin pressures. The smaller Left parties, including the Communist Party of India, Forward Bloc and Revolutionary Socialist Party, pull in the direction of ending support to the UPA on foreign and economic policy grounds.

There is pressure from the opposite direction from the Left’s dominant party, the CPM, in particular, its West Bengal unit, which is turning conservative through its embrace of neo-liberal economics.

“The Bengal leadership enjoys a cosy relationship with the UPA and does not want to upset the applecart,” says Rajat Roy, a Kolkata-based political analyst and keen observer of the Left, which has ruled the state for fully 30 years.

”The Left Front did brilliantly in the 2006 state legislature elections, winning 235 of 294 seats. It knows that its tally of votes and seats is likely to decline in a mid-term election. It wants to avert such an eventuality right now,” Roy told IPS.

If national elections are held right now, opinion polls have forecast a decline in the number of Left MPs from 59 currently to between 39 and 43. This is likely to have a sobering impact on the Left leadership.

Equally important, the UPA has quietly, if temporarily, shelved its plans to negotiate a special safeguards (inspections) protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency in September, when its plenary meets in Vienna. Instead, the government will take up the issue in November, thus giving itself more time to work out a compromise with the Left.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has also declined a special invitation by President George W. Bush to a meeting at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. This is meant to signal that his government is prepared to make some distance from Washington.

However, uncertainties remain. Will the Left be satisfied with a “domestic Hyde Act” or insist on other assurances? Will the UPA suspend further steps in completing the deal, and for how long? What is clear is that the primary determinants of the deal’s fate will be domestic.

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