It is odd how political crises erupt, almost without warning. After just over three years of uneasy co-operation, India’s Congress-led coalition is suddenly vulnerable because friendly Leftist parties are objecting to a nuclear deal that has been struck with America. The government depends on these parties’ 59 parliamentary seats for its majority in the Lok Sabha (the lower house of parliament), so it would become a minority administration if it lost their support. We have got so used to the Left holding up a whole range of economic reforms and other government initiatives that we should of course have foreseen this crisis, instead of assuming that everyone would muddle along on the nuclear deal, as they have done on other issues, with the Left’s known opposition somehow being accommodated.
The Left is challenging the government because the deal dramatically changes India’s foreign policy not just on America, but also potentially on other countries such as Iran. Notionally the deal is about allowing India to have access to nuclear fuel and equipment from America and other countries for the first time in over 30 years, without having to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The idea is that nuclear energy should provide 20,000 MW of power by 2020, up from 4,000MW now – if of course India managed radically to improve its project construction capabilities and actually built the nuclear plants.
The Left, partly reflecting widespread reservations (and some opposition) in India about close relations with America, is objecting and wants the deal examined and possibly changed (which the government says is impossible). It is concerned that India’s freedom to stage nuclear weapon tests would be curtailed because America could then stop implementing the agreement, albeit only after lengthy consultations. But the Left and others argue, on a broader front, that India is putting itself in a position where it would have to toe America’s line on foreign policy – for example on Iran, with which India wants to continue years’ of friendly relations and build a gas pipeline. The government’s reply is, basically, that these fears are groundless.
Curiously, India’s constitution does not require governments to have international treaties approved by parliament, so there is no need for this highly significant foreign policy deal to be put to a vote when a parliamentary debate takes place, maybe next week after attempts to hold it this week ended in uproar. Meanwhile, there is a risk that the crisis could lead to the government falling. None of the parties in the coalition, nor the Left which is led by the CPI-M (India’s biggest Communist party), wants this to happen. A general election is not due till the first half of 2009, and members of parliament hate having their five years of power and patronage halted by mid-term polls, so they are urging their leaders not to allow the government to fall. That leaves several potential scenarios:
1. The government agrees to go slow on operationalising the deal with international nuclear authorities and America, while the details are analyzed, buying time with the Left.
– CURRENT SHORT-TERM tactic which has already begun. It avoids an immediate crisis, but it could appear to go against what Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, has said about pressing ahead with implementation and might provoke his resignation if it endangered the deal.
2. The Left withdraws support. Sonia Gandhi, the Congress Party and coalition leader, and Singh tell India’s president that they will continue with a minority government. They move ahead on finalizing the deal with international nuclear agencies and America, which causes continual political friction and uncertainty. This continues until they are defeated in a parliamentary vote on a political issue or controversial policy or other political issue – maybe on next year’s budget (due February 28), if not before – which triggers a general election.
– LIKELY MEDIUM-TERM outcome, unless Option One produces an unexpected compromise.
3. Gandhi and Singh override the wishes of Congress’s coalition allies and Congress MPs and call a snap general election soon.
– POSSIBLE BUT HIGH RISK because Congress can only lead the next government if allies pick up sufficient parliamentary seats, which might not happen, especially if it does not have (or want) the Left as allies.
4. Gandhi decides to defuse the crisis and asks Manmohan Singh to resign, probably replacing him with Pranab Mukherjee, the politically astute external affairs minister. The nuclear deal is shelved, ending the confrontation with the Left.
– UNLIKELY because Gandhi has stood behind Singh and the deal so far. She also trusts Singh more than Mukherjee to hold the prime ministerial fort, without developing independent political ambitions, till her son Rahul Gandhi is ready to take over (though that take-over looks ever more distant, the more time goes by).
5. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which leads the parliamentary opposition, co-operates with the Left to defeat the government in parliament, forcing a confidence vote which the government loses.
– VERY UNLIKELY, even though it looks logical, because the Left cannot be seen to be co-operating with the Hindu-nationalist BJP.
6. The Left withdraws its opposition, or waters it down to such an extent that the deal can go ahead. The crisis ends, leaving an uneasy and sour relationship between Congress and the Left, but the government survives.
– MOST UNLIKELY because it would be too much of a climb-down for the Left.
So where does that leave us? Simply saying that politicians are brilliant at solving political problems when they want to – which is what the government and the Left are trying to do now – but it’s hard to see how Singh and his government can last till 2009.