New Delhi: Monday’s meeting of the 15-member United Progressive Alliance-Left Front panel to discuss the civilian nuclear deal between India and the US could well decide the future of the government, and it comes in the wake of several interesting developments.
The UPA comes to the meeting after announcing a populist and controversial Rs 60,000 crore farm loan waiver in Budget 2008 and explaining the math behind the funding of this scheme last week. It remains keen to sign the nuclear deal and has repeatedly ruled out early elections—its position is that they will be held as scheduled in 2009. The Left Front, which supports the government without being part of it, cannot afford to withdraw support without being seen as anti-Budget and consequently, anti-farmer, say experts.
Talking heads: A file photo of UPA and Left leaders after a meeting on the nuclear deal.
Meanwhile, the US continues to push for the deal and the Bharatiya Janata Party, the main opposition party, has said it will renegotiate the deal should it come to power after the next general elections.
At the Monday’s meeting, the UPA will present to the Left Front, the draft India-specific safeguards agreement reached with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
“More than the nuclear deal, this is about the Congress signalling that it won’t let the Left parties walk all over them,” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think tank that is not aligned with any party. “The Left is in no position to oppose this Budget. The Congress can easily turn around and say that first the Left Front government in West Bengal shot down poor farmers in Nandigram (over protests against the state’s acquisition of land for a special economic zone), and now the Left parties are not even letting the poor farmers benefit from the proposed debt relief.”
Even as the Left parties welcomed the debt relief scheme, they pointed out that it would not cover the vast majority of farmers who had borrowed from moneylenders. While announcing details of the funding of the package, finance minister P. Chidambaram said he would try to find a solution for the farmers who have been left out. “The best can never become the enemy of the good. I am doing what is doable,” he said.
In the run-up to the Budget, the Left Front seemed to have stepped up its criticism of the government, especially over rising prices, but the pro-farmer, pro-poor, pro-minorities Budget would appear to have tilted the power balance in favour of the UPA.
In the run-up to the meeting, being called at the insistence of the Left Front, Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Prakash Karat and Communist Party of India (CPI) general secretary A.B. Bardhan warned the government that it could go ahead with the deal only at the cost of support from them.
Sitaram Yechury, a Rajya Sabha member of the CPI(M), said: “As far as we are concerned, we cannot support a government that signs this deal with the US. We have repeatedly stated our position and we have again reminded the government that it needs to return to the UPA-Left panel with the draft agreement reached with the IAEA. Only if, and when, this panel approves the draft, the government can proceed to the next step.”
While the government would like to move to the next stage, the Left Front hopes to discuss the draft agreement until it gets too late for the government to clinch the deal, which needs the approval of the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers’ Group and the US Congress, besides the IAEA.
With US presidential elections scheduled for November, the country’s Congress will not even discuss the agreement after July, effectively making that a deadline for India.
The UPA appeared to have upped the ante in early March when it said it intended to go ahead with the deal. The Left Front reacted predictably.
Since then, elections to three northeastern states have been held and the Congress has performed poorly in two. External affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee, the convenor of the UPA-Left Front panel, has said the government is confident of being able to convince the Left Front on the nuclear deal.
Meanwhile, the US government has been mounting pressure, with assistant secretary of state Richard Boucher contradicting Mukherjee’s claims that the US government would not sign the deal with a minority government in India. That fits in with Bardhan’s indication that the Left Front would not rush to pull down the UPA government, even if it were to withdraw support to it over the nuclear deal.
Points of contention
• India, US civilian nuclear cooperation agreement
• Thrust on public-private partnership in the rail budget
• Hike in retail prices of petrol and diesel
• India’s joint naval exercise with the US, Japan and Australia
• Violence in West Bengal’s Nandigram
• Entry of foreign educational institutions into India
• FDI in and growth of organized sector in retail
• Disinvestment in profit-making public sector units
• Insurance, banking, labour reforms
• Pension funds in stock markets
• Rise in prices and shortage of essential commodities
• State of the public distribution system