Getting the nod of the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) for the Indo-US nuclear deal—this is expected to be passed by the US Congress later this month—will be recorded as the most important achievement of the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at theCentre.
What does consummating this deal mean to Prime Minister Singh and the Congress-led UPA towards the end of their five-year term? And, how will this affect the principal political players as India heads for a poll season with a string of assembly elections barely two months from now and the a general election slated for April-May?
For Singh, the culmination of the nuclear deal is a vindication of sorts. He has always maintained that the deal is in the nation’s interest. He held his nerve at crucial moments when his government appeared shaky and secured the full backing of his party and coalition’s leadership.
Until a few months ago, the widespread impression among people was that Singh was a “puppet” prime minister who was not just weak but could take no decisions on his own.
Recent political developments and the imminent success of the nuclear deal have brought about a phenomenal transformation in this image and Singh is now seen as a strong-willed leader and as a man with firm convictions who will stay in office only on his terms. In today’s politics, when political leaders cringe and stoop to stick to office, Singh’s firm stand has won him support. As the UPA government’s term is drawing to a close, Singh has gained in stature and has emerged out of the shadows of Congress leader Sonia Gandhi who is the “real” leader of the coalition. He has also proved his newly acquired political management and negotiation skills in securing the support of an arch rival, the Samajwadi Party (SP), to stave off a threat to his government after a key ally, the Left Front, withdrew support to the UPA government over the issue of the nuclear deal.
The image of Singh’s government has been sullied by the murky developments leading to the UPA government’s trust vote in the Lok Sabha on 22 July, which it won by a wide margin. Fortunately for the Prime Minister, allegations that representatives of opposition parties were bribed to support the government have not dented the public perception of Singh as an “apolitical” leader with unquestioned personal integrity.
Can the nuke deal be a poll issue?
The Congress party is in raptures over the success of the nuclear deal and has begun talking about it as a panacea to all energy ills that ail India. Someone in the Congress party has already come up with a weird slogan: “Give your vote to the Congress; we will give you electricity ”. After 20 years?
Will the nuke deal—billed as the UPA government’s major success—translate into electoral support? This is unlikely as the deal is a complete non-issue as far as voters are concerned. Imminent elections to the state assemblies of Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh will vindicate this assessment. At one level, people are completely unaware of what the deal is all about and at another, they seem hardly bothered about it due to its esoteric nature and long-range benefits. Therefore, any attempt to highlight it as a major achievement of the government to gain political mileage would come a cropper.
However, UPA can take solace from the fact that pursuing the nuclear deal has not cost it the Muslim vote as was feared earlier. The Muslim vote is intact with the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar, the SP in Uttar Pradesh and the Congress in all its strongholds. The campaign by the opposition parties that the deal draws India closer to the Bush administration in the US and, by implication, makes the country anti-Muslim has come unstuck.
In my assessment, it would be a monumental blunder for the UPA to pitch its political campaign on the nuclear deal. And it will be no less a blunder than the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) “India Shining” campaign before the last general election.
Equally, the NDA and the Left Front will be making a huge mistake if they carry their opposition to the nuclear deal to the electoral battlefield as they will be sidestepping the key issue of inflation which has made the life of the “common man” unbearable.
The UPA government that is basking in the glow of nuclear success should realize that its failure to contain inflation will likely become the key poll issue in next year’s general election. If UPA hopes to win elections on the issue of nuclear power, darkness is sure to shroud it in the next polls.
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G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of a Delhi-based research consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com