Pranab Mukherjee, India’s external affairs minister, and Sonia Gandhi, president of the Congress party and chairperson of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, have in recent days made stirring speeches about the rise in oil prices and the inevitability of cheap and green nuclear power.
Surely, the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal must be on their minds.
After all, quick clean energy is what the deal promises India. It gives the country permission to circumvent tightly framed international rules about producing nuclear power, and getting international help in setting up nuclear reactors that will produce energy.
What’s more, the deal allows India to keep its military programme separate, so that it can keep its nuclear arsenal up to date.
Still, everyone’s known all of the above for the last year or so, when the text of the deal was frozen between India and the US in late July. Over the last year, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has openly come out in its favour, while Gandhi, who made similar comments in praise of nuclear energy at a Haryana rally in November, promptly did a U-turn at the Hindustan Times summit last year. The nuclear deal was more or less off the table, she said, because the Left parties, with whose backing the UPA remains in power, would otherwise pull support.
What a coincidence, then, that both Gandhi and Mukherjee have spoken up for nuclear power, on the eve of the UPA-Left meeting in the capital on 18 June (Wednesday).
Mukherjee will meet Left leaders including Sitaram Yechury and D. Raja, and it is expected that both will make suitable noises and defer the witching hour, that is, the time when the government must take a call to either go ahead or kill the deal.
The Left parties will want to know from Mukherjee whether the government intends to go ahead and take the next steps with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) or not. Mukherjee & Co. are unlikely to give them a yes-no answer, which means that the deal is still alive, but only just.
Truth is, and this is what the government has never fully revealed: India and IAEA have already frozen a text, and initialled it. They need not sign a formal agreement between themselves before the deal can be taken to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). A formal agreement can be signed at any time, even after Stage Three, that is after the deal is voted upon by the US Congress.
Fact is, India can take the text of the agreement (with IAEA) as it exists today to NSG. In theory, any other country, such as the US, can also do so. Once that is done, everyone knows that the US will push the deal through NSG and then take it to the US Congress.
The US has been ready to do this since July 2007, it has been the Congress party that has prevented it from doing so. Once Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Prakash Karat made it clear to Sonia Gandhi that the Left would pull support from the government if it went ahead with the nuclear deal, the Congress party choked upon its own enthusiasm.
One reason why senior Congress leaders are now making new noises is that the party is increasingly getting irritated with the Left’s constant cribbing about the government’s inability to control inflation, etc. Moreover, it smells a political opportunity to assert itself and go down in history.
That is why Mukherjee met Karat at his residence late on Monday, sources said. Mukherjee is believed to have requested Karat to let India clear the IAEA hurdle, and told him that he must “trust” the government. But Karat is hardly likely to go back on his most public commitment so far. If he does, he loses face—and power—within his own party, as well as nationally.
In the end, it will be up to the Congress to take that call. Ashley Tellis, the Indian-born adviser to US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, and now an adviser to Republican presidential nominee John McCain, has said that the Indo-US deal, for all practical purposes, is dead.
However, a very small window can remain open right till October. If India clears the deal at IAEA and NSG by then, and delivers it to the US Congress by October, there may not be enough time to vote upon it before US elections take place in November. However, according to US administration rules, Congress comes together after elections to pass the monies needed to run the government until the new administration takes over in January. The Indo-US nuclear deal, especially since it needs only a yes-no, vote can even be passed then.
Working backwards, if it takes a month to clear the deal at NSG, then India would have to take a political call latest by September. That gives the Congress three months and a monsoon session of Parliament to decide what to do. If both the Left and the Congress continue to trade insults, the election-writing could soon be on the wall.
Jyoti Malhotra is Mint’s diplomatic affairs editor and writes on the intersection of foreign policy, trade and politics every week.
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