After months of shilly-shallying, the future of both India’s Congress-led coalition government, and its proposed nuclear deal with the United States, will probably be known by the end of next week.
That’s quite a brave forecast in India’s current political firmament. It seems that the government will have to decide by then whether to do what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wants, and pursue the deal – even though that would mean losing the support of Communist-led Leftist parties that give it a parliamentary majority.
It looks as if it will do so, if it can muster enough votes to replace the Leftists – but that is a big “if”.
Why the end of next week? Because Singh has been telling colleagues that he is not prepared to go to a G8 meeting in Tokyo on July 7 and 8 and face George Bush and other world leaders as a prime minister who has failed for three years to seal the nuclear deal. There have been widespread reports, which I am told by good sources are correct, that he has threatened to resign if the government does not back him.
This has put Sonia Gandhi, the Congress president who heads the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition, in a difficult position because her regional party allies are reluctant to risk an early general election for a deal that has little electoral resonance. It’s not a good time to hold polls – inflation is rising at over 11%, the stock market is sliding, the bank rate has just gone up to 8.5% and there are fears that economic growth is slowing.
Gandhi could let Singh resign, but she has no-one capable and trust-worthy to replace him because her 38-year old son Rahul, who is being dynastically groomed for the job, is not yet ready.
She and the other parties would therefore prefer to avoid crises and hold the general election when it is due around April next year. Singh, on the other hand, believes that the deal and India’s credibility (and his place in history) are more important than the risks of an early general election. He argues that the deal has been approved by the cabinet and the UPA and that the Leftists should not be allowed to stop it.
The outline deal was signed by Singh and Bush in Washington in July 2005. It would allow India access to nuclear technology and equipment from America and other countries for the first time in over 30 years, without India having to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Currently India has 14 reactors supplying about 3% of its electricity. The aim is for nuclear generation to rise to 25% by 2050, so India needs the deal, which would also give it access to urgently needed uranium for its existing reactors.
The deal has been criticized by several senior figures in India’s nuclear and science establishment because they fear it would not be able to pursue its nuclear weapons program effectively. This program is needed to give it strategic defense against Pakistan and, more importantly in the longer term, China. There is also a considerable body of opinion that fears India’s foreign policy would be restricted by the U.S. – for example, by interfering with its long-standing friendly relations with Iran and possibly with links with Russia.
But the most significant opposition – which is causing the current political crisis – has come from the Leftist parties that are ideologically opposed to any close relationship with the U.S. Singh had hoped that they would back down over the past three years, but their stance has if anything hardened. Yesterday (June 26) they made it clear at a meeting with the government that they would withdraw the support of their 59 members of parliament if it went ahead and ratified the deal at the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA), the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog.
Theoretically, that ratification could happen soon, but it could also be blocked if the UPA loses its parliamentary majority and becomes a minority government. China is believed to have been arguing that only a strong government should be allowed to go ahead.
After the IAEA, the deal would have to go to the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG), whose 45 member-countries all have to agree. Then it has to go to Congress in Washington for ratification.
The United States has been warning for months that time is getting short, given that there is a presidential election in November. “We are kind of playing in overtime right now,” Richard Boucher, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, said nearly three months ago. Officials now say however that it could still be possible to get the deal through (by arranging for a 90-day voting process to be waived), but that India should move quickly.
The first step is for government to overcome its domestic political problems. It is courting the Samajwadi regional party from Uttar Pradesh to give it support. The Samajwadi has 39 MPs who, together with votes from some other small unaligned parties, could give the government the majority it needs without the Leftists. That could save the deal.
If the Samajwadi Party, which Congress has treated unkindly since the last general election, refuses to join in, the government will have to decide whether to go ahead at the IAEA, and risk an early general election, or risk losing its prime minister.