NEW DELHI, Aug 17 (IPS) - The United States-India nuclear cooperation agreement, tabled in India's Parliament on Monday, has precipitated the worst-ever political crisis for the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government since it was formed a little over three years ago.
Although the existence of the 'left-of-centre' UPA government is not immediately threatened, it has clearly lost the support of the communist parties on this defining foreign and security policy issue.
Support from the 59 members of parliament of the Left parties, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has been critically necessary for the survival of the UPA, which lacks a majority of its own in the 543-strong Lower House of Parliament.
This means the UPA will remain isolated on a major issue pertaining to
Singh, who has staked a lot on the nuclear deal, faces an unpleasant choice. A majority of
Here, he risks losing a narrow window of opportunity for the agreement's ratification by the U.S. Congress by the end of 2007, before it goes into election mode.
Alternatively, he can quickly ready the deal for
Ironically, Singh brought this crisis upon himself. On Aug. 11, two days before the text of the "123 agreement" (so called because it will amend Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act, 1954 to lift prohibitions on nuclear cooperation with
In the interview, Singh staunchly defended the deal, attacked its critics, and dared the Left to withdraw support to the UPA. He said: "I told them that it is not possible to renegotiate the deal. It is an honourable deal, the Cabinet has approved it...if they want to withdraw support, so be it..."
He also said: "They are our colleagues and we have to work with them. But they also have to learn to work with us." He chided the Left for not having "thought" things "through" on the nuclear agreement and the welcome accorded to it by nuclear scientists and experts.
This brought a sharp rebuff from CPM general secretary Prakash Karat, who said the UPA was running the government with the Left's support; it should decide whether "it wants to run this government". Karat also sarcastically remarked that Singh is "very sensitive about his government's relations with the U.S., but this (the deal) is a matter of serious national import."
"After Singh so openly challenged the Left, and made disparaging remarks against it, Karat had no choice but to join issue with him," says Anuradha Chenoy, a social scientist with Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, and a keen observer of Left politics.
Chenoy added that it could not have been ''an accident that Singh chose to grant the interview to a Kolkata-based paper, rather than a national daily published from New Delhi''. Kolkata is the capital of CPM-ruled
Singh, said Chenoy, wanted to reach out to the
However, it is unlikely that Singh's stratagem of playing off differences within the CPM will produce a major shift in the party's stand on the deal.
On Monday, the Left parties reiterated their opposition to the deal by walking out when Singh finished reading his statement on it in the Lower House of Parliament amidst relentless slogan-shouting by regional party and right-wing MPs.
When it became clear that the Left would not cow down and dilute its opposition, the Prime Minister sought a breakfast meeting with Karat on Tuesday, to which Karat agreed after much persuasion. Singh also talked to Bhatttacharjee, whom he is likely to meet on Friday.
"Going by past experience, the Left parties are unlikely to change their stand against the deal," argues Achin Vanaik, a political scientist at
Vanaik explained that more will be known after political bureaux of the CPM and CPI meet this weekend. 'We'll soon know whether they dilute or maintain/harden their stand. Their biggest constraint is that they cannot risk toppling the UPA government because that would help the Hindu-chauvinist and jingoistic Bharatiya Janata Party. But they can continue to oppose the nuclear deal without formally voting against the government and thus risking the possible return of the BJP.'
At stake here is the Left's distinct ideological-political identity. In the three states (including Kerala and Tripura) in which it rules, but especially in
If the Left parties lose their image as staunch opponents of
Unlike the Right and centrist parties, which focus primarily on asymmetries in the "123 agreement" in the rights and obligations of India and the United States, and some of whom (not the BJP) oppose close relations with Washington, the Left concentrates its criticism on the deal as part of a U.S.-India "strategic partnership" or India's strategic embrace of the U.S.
The Left too speaks of asymmetries at some length and is worried that the U.S. can terminate the agreement arbitrarily, while India must accept safeguards (inspections) on some of its nuclear facilities in perpetuity.
The Left at least refers to the impact of "123" on
"These are strong suits which the Left would do well to develop," says Vanaik. "This will help it demarcate itself sharply from others. In particular, it should emphasize that the nuclear deal will increase
The International Panel on Fissile Materials, a group of independent scientists, estimates that the nuclear deal will allow
Meanwhile, the political fate of the nuclear deal remains unclear. How the UPA handles the issue will determine its longevity.