Posted by: John Elliott | October 9, 2007

India’s nuclear-induced political brinkmanship

India’s politicians, media, and political analysts are in a frenzy. One day the country seems to be on the brink of an imminent general election, and the next day it is not; at least not yet and maybe not till well into next year.

There are frequent bust-ups – accidental, simulated or real – between the Congress-led government and the block of Left parties that support it in parliament. It’s real election fever stuff – maybe though not so feverish as in Britain last week before Gordon Brown chickened out of holding a general election. And, unlike Britain, the decision on having an election here is not down to one man but is dependent on the political swings of people who are fairly new to such brinkmanship politics – Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the coalition, and the Left parties.

The subject that’s causing all the fuss is the proposed nuclear deal which would give India access to nuclear fuel and technology for its electric power program from America and elsewhere, and build a strong diplomatic as well as economic bond between the two countries. There would also be other benefits for Indian industry, which would gain international access to sensitive technologies as well as potential orders in the space and defense fields – all of which have been progressively denied to India since its nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998.

These are substantial benefits and they have led to the deal being generally supported by a considerable majority of politicians, bureaucrats, scientists and opinion formers in India. But the deal is firmly opposed by the Left which (not surprisingly) distrusts and opposes such a close and dependent relationship with America. The Left also fears (justifiably) that America could and would cut off the nuclear supplies and other advantages if a future government in Washington opposed something India did, despite safeguards negotiated as part of the proposed deal. Washington says that such a cut-off is unlikely because there would be a large number of powerful US companies such as Boeing, GE, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin that would lobby against losing business – but that does not satisfy the critics. There are also questions (though, sadly, little real debate) about whether potentially expensive nuclear power is the right way to tackle the country’s power shortages, and about whether the main beneficiaries would perhaps be American contractors.

Two determined men are facing each other over the deal – and thus the future of the government. One is the prime minister who, supported by Gandhi, sees the deal as significant historically as the seminal economic reforms that he introduced as finance minister in 1991. He has even talked about resigning if the deal does not to go through. The other is Prakash Karat, the hard-line leader of the CPI-M, India’s biggest communist party that leads the block of 60 Left party MPs. Karat seems determined to withdraw support from the coalition if the deal proceeds, even though he knows that such an action would remove the government’s parliamentary majority and could lead to a general election before the due date in 2009.

The first option that I outlined in a post on August 23, 2007 – “India’s government risks being nuked” – is therefore now in play. The government is buying time with the Left by going slow on operationalising the deal through talks with international nuclear authorities. The current on-off crisis stems from uncertainty about how slow the government is prepared to go and how rigidly the Left will eventually block the deal. Specifically, in line with America’s wishes, the government wants to start talks soon on nuclear safeguards with the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog, and the Left says it will withdraw parliamentary support if and when that happens. (Mohamed El Baradei, the head of the IAEA, is in India this week on a long-scheduled visit that includes a speech on Friday at a conference dealing with India’s role in the world). The next steps would be to seek agreement from the multi-national Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, which meets in Vienna next month, and then to put a completed package to the US Congress in the New Year.

The next stage, as I outlined in August, would be for the Left to withdraw support from the government, which would then continue to operate as a minority administration till it is defeated in parliament, or until Congress decides to call for a general election. It is hard to guess when that withdrawal might take place because the Left does not want to precipitate an election. Congress on the other hand, while weak in grass roots organization, would face an election confidently because the main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in disarray, with no clear leader to take over from the ailing Atal Behari Vajpayee, the former prime minister. Recent opinion polls have indicated that Congress would return to power leading another coalition, and Congress activists have been energized by the recent appointment of Rahul Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi’s 37-year old son, as a general secretary of the party as her heir-apparent.

But a quick election is not in the cards. The government is being urged by America to finalize the nuclear deal as quickly as possible, ahead of the American presidential elections next November, so Gandhi and Singh would want to do that before going to the polls. In the meantime, it should be quite possible for the government to continue operating with a minority in parliament, supported by the Left on non-controversial issues – unless the Left becomes so enraged with the finalizing of the deal that it provokes an election-inducing crisis. Nothing is therefore definite – but best to bet for now on an election around March or April next year.

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