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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Bitter October

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, say reports, is a bitter man. He feels particularly let down by allies, since he expected that the opposition would be unsparing towards the Indo-US nuclear deal anyway. There are two things he can do—swallow his bitterness like a kaliyug Shiva and stay in office, or spit it out and quit. Either way, there are implications for the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance. He may not be much of a political heavy-weight, but he is clearly indispensible for the Congress president who does not trust a Pranab Mukherji and is not likely to hand the government over to the lightweight and incompetent Shivraj Patil.

But the fact is that there is an irretrievable breakdown in the relations between the Prime Minister and the Left on one hand, and between the PM and his coalition allies who finally slipped the knife into his back earlier this month. There is, no doubt, an element of unhappiness with Ms Sonia Gandhi as well who went along with Lalu, Karunanidhi, Pawar and Co in the process, resulting in the current impasse. Worse, a day or so later on October 12, during the Hindustan Times conference, when asked as to who she depends on for political advice, named her son, daughter and son-in-law and did not even make a passing reference to her prime minister.

The Left played dirty by going along with the deal through 2005, 2006 and most of 2007 and pulled the rug under his feet after the enormous achievement of the Indian “123 Agreement” which is extremely favourable to us. His allies—Lalu, Karunanidhi and Pawar—not only went along with him, but were represented or actually part of the Union Cabinet that approved every step of the negotiations, and finally endorsed the “123 Agreement.” On July 25, a combined meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security and the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs okayed the 123. Incidentally, that very evening, Prakash Karat, Sitaram Yechury and CPI leader D. Raja were given a special presentation on the deal by officials at the Prime Minister’s residence. There are no reports of the Left having declared themselves dead-set against the deal at this stage. On August 19, according to The Hindu:

The key constituents of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) on Sunday night threw in their lot with coalition chairperson Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and expressed full confidence in their ability to address “all legitimate concerns” voiced by the Left parties.

The goings on of October 9/10 therefore were a surprise to Singh, though they should not have been. The allies may claim that it was one thing to give the endorsement above, quite another to have the cold water of an election thrown on their face. But the fact is that if they had held their nerve, they could have emerged winners, instead of the dispirited and confused bunch they appear now.


Now there are straws in the wind to suggest that the UPA is recovering some of the coherence it lost at that time. This is apparent from the outcome of the latest meeting of the UPA-Left committee on October 22. Prior to the meeting there were a lot of bombastic declarations demanding that the government announce the termination of the Indo-US nuclear deal, or leave it to the next US administration-- statements tantamount to a Congress party surrender. But the outcome of the meeting was anodyne, suggesting that it was the Left that backed off. The conclusion of Monday meeting declared that:

Issues currently before it [the committee] would be addressed in an appropriate manner and the operationalisation of the deal will take into account the Committee’s findings.

This is actually a restatement of the positions the committee has taken from the very outset and its reiteration indicates that the Congress is not budging and the Left could be up the creek without a paddle.

Reports in several papers now claim that the time frame of the nuclear deal will not be adhered to as regards India-specific safeguards negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) scheduled for October, negotiations with the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) slated for November and taking the deal to the U.S. Congress in January 2008.

Nicholas Burns seems to have repeated this view to a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on Tuesday. According to Reuters, Burns is reported to have said that the US was approaching election time and that it was tough to pass legislation at such times. Adding,

We don't have an unlimited amount of time...We'd like to get this agreement to the United States Congress by the end of the year.

He is right, but the technical timeline—which means the time required to get the technicalities of the deal worked out—actually extends all the way to the end of 2008. However, as the months pass, there is an inevitable loss of momentum and the chances of it being taken up by the Congress recede. The steps needed now are for the approval of an India-specific safeguards agreement by the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. Between you and me, this agreement is more-or-less ready and could be approved within a week of India’s request. While there is a formal 45-day process to summon the Board of Governors meeting, the IAEA chief Mohammed El Baradei is backing the deal and will provide a short cut.

There is an NSG meeting scheduled in November and it is possible that the US will get pre-approval from their colleagues based on the prospective IAEA safeguards agreement. The NSG approval will not be simple because the members want to connect it to the Fissile Material Cut Off and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. But a measure sandwiching the INFCIRC/ 66, the IAEA's basic standard agreement with some language on the FMCT and CTBT could pass.So the whole process can be telescoped into about a month. As for the US Congress, mid-2008 can be seen as the outside limit of prudent planning.

There has been some talk about how the Democratic party would look at the deal. The Hyde Act, that enabled the 123 Agreement to be arrived at was passed by an overwhelming vote of the US Congress. Observers expect that the non-proliferationists in the new putative Clinton Administration would make life difficult for India and Hillary has already signaled her views through an article in Foreign Affairs, saying she would push for the CTBT in 2009. However these observers do not realize that countries like the US do not make policy moves out of whim but considerable cogitation and analysis. What Bush II did was based on what Bush I had initiated. In addition, he built on the goodwill generated by Bill Clinton’s overtures to India. The Indo-US nuclear deal is part of Washington’s strategic grand design. India may be a cog in this, but an it is an increasingly important one.

So now we need to look at the political timeline here in India. Given the public postures, there is no chance that the Left will approve of the deal. So at some point the UPA must say they are going ahead, and when they do so, the Left will announce a withdrawal of support. The government need not fall immediately, but it will begin the clock ticking for the next elections. My guess would be that it could well be after the Gujarat elections whose results should be known by December 23. This times well with the end of the winter session of Parliament. So the technical and political timelines can be made to intersect in early January, leading to elections in May.

Almost every election in India is a paradigm shift and so will the next one be. The best the Indian people can hope for is the emergence of one, two or three fronts that have some ideological coherence and are coalitions with some dharma, not just opportunistic alliances that are used as stepping stones to political power.

1 comment:

Cherisam said...

Dr. Joshi, thanks for the incisive analysis, as always. Btw, the link to Mrs. Clinton's Foreign Affairs piece, is malformed...there's extra stuff at the beginning of the link that has to be removed