Posted by: John Elliott | October 23, 2007

India’s unhappy PM isn’t about to quit

There’s nothing better than a good government crisis to spice up an international conference. The political maneuvering may not actually invade the conference sessions, but they liven up conversations in the coffee and lunch breaks and evening partying.

It’s beginning to look as if that is exactly what will happen when Fortune magazine’s Global Forum comes to Delhi early next week because the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, is deeply unhappy about the way the government is edging away from the nuclear deal that he has crafted with America.

I don’t think he’ll be resigning soon. Indeed he has today agreed to speak at the Forum next Monday (the 29th), which indicates there’s nothing cataclysmic coming soon. And Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the government coalition, and of Singh’s Congress Party, is on a five-day official visit to China from later this week, which will also slow down political activity at home.

But Singh was widely reported in this morning’s daily newspapers as having expressed his frustrations and feeling of lost authority at a meeting of the government’s coalition allies yesterday, and the future of the government is in doubt. “How can I run the government like this?” he is reported to have asked, rhetorically. Some reports suggested he said he could resign, but that I am sure his outburst was more a statement of the obvious than a serious threat. In any case, Gandhi has no one ideal to replace him, so will not let him go.

As I’ve reported here before, problems have arisen over the proposed nuclear deal, which would give India access to nuclear fuel and technology for its electric power program from America and elsewhere. More importantly, it would build strong diplomatic and economic ties between the two countries. But the deal is firmly opposed by Leftist parties, led by the communist CPI-M, which distrust and oppose such a close and dependent relationship with America, and fear – probably justifiably – that a future American government would cut off the nuclear supplies if India displeased it.

These Leftist parties have threatened to withdraw their parliamentary support for the government if it goes ahead with the next stage of the deal, which involves negotiating an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). That would remove the government’s parliamentary majority and would lead to a general election. Yesterday’s meeting was initially expected to resolve the deadlock between the political parties but they shied away from a confrontation and will not meet again till November 16.

The deadlock has arisen because, while the coalition government wants to go ahead with the nuclear deal, only Congress feels confident enough to fall out with the Left and have an election. Smaller regional parties in the coalition do not want an election, because they are enjoying the power and patronage of being part of the government – which could run till 2009. Leftist parties also want to avoid an early election because would probably do badly in the polls.

The American administration is frustrated and angry that a deal negotiated between the two governments is faltering. Yesterday, the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, Nicholas Burns, said in Washington that the administration would “like to get this agreement to the U.S. Congress by the end of the year.”

That’s seems extremely unlikely. More probable is drift through the rest of this year with, as I’ve forecast before, a general election in the early part of next year. It might then be too late to revive the deal before America’s presidential elections.

In the meantime, people at the Global Forum can hear India’s prime minister speak next week – and speculate on the future of the government whose authority has been seriously weakened.

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