New Delhi: Fresh political controversy erupted a day after minister of state for environment and forests Jairam Ramesh signalled the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-led government’s willingness to be flexible in the ongoing negotiations for a global deal to fight climate change, including revisiting its long-standing position on not accepting legally binding emission cuts.

Ramesh himself clarified from Cancun, Mexico, that India had not undertaken any legal binding commitment and said the decision was taken to ensure that India was not isolated alongside China and the US—the top two countries in emissions.

According to him, most developing countries, particularly the less-developed ones and the island states, wanted a legally binding commitment in place.

“Even Brazil and South Africa were willing to go along. That would have left India with China and the US," he said.

Against isolation: Minister of state for environment and forests Jairam Ramesh. Cris Bouroncle/AFP

Even as the opposition alleged a sellout of national interests and rallied to corner the government, already reeling under charges of corruption in public projects and the allocation of spectrum for second generation telecom services, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stepped in to defend Ramesh.

On the sidelines of his ongoing visit to Brussels for the 11th India-EU summit, Singh said: “Don’t read too much into it."

Arguing similarly, deputy Planning Commission chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia reiterated the need to be flexible. “It is not very useful to evaluate our position on what was stated five years ago. Negotiating is a dynamic process and our objective should be to protect our national interests," he said.

Ahluwalia is a part of the high-level advisory group set up by United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon and represents India in the effort to raise funds to assist developing countries fight climate-change problems.

A person in the government familiar with the developments pointed out that Ramesh had agreed to all countries accepting a legal binding commitment under “appropriate legal forms". This, the person explained, provided the government room to differentiate on legally binding commitments between developing and developed countries.

In other words, the distinction between the two groups and hence their acceptance of emission cuts would be differentiated. The person did not want to be identified.

However, activists and opposition political parties attacked the government for shifting its stance.

Sunita Narain, head of the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi, maintained that India had conceded too much without getting anything substantive in return. “He is selling India for few peanuts," she said.

While the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party alleged that the change in stance would damage the nation’s interests, the Left said the government had buckled under US pressure.

“This obvious contradiction is incomprehensible. Either the minister feels that he is too clever by half or that the?nation is incapable of comprehending his volte-face. The stand that the minister has taken is contrary to the parliamentary mandate. It is contrary to India’s position over the last several years. His ‘flexibility’ has compromised India’s interest," said Arun Jaitley, leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha.

“When it comes to vital national interests, countries have stood alone. India has done this in the past in the case of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (1996)," said Prodipto Ghosh, former environment secretary. “Legally binding commitments have been rejected by the US and China, so why are we saying we are isolated? Perceived isolation should not be a reason for giving up national interest."

Ghosh was part of the climate change negotiating team ahead?of?the?Copenhagen?talks.

Condemning the country’s new position, Communist Party of India (Marxist) politburo member Brinda Karat asked the government to come clean on the issue. “This is a sell-out and it is extremely unfortunate that this should have happened. We strongly condemn it and demand that the government should come clean on this issue," she said.

However, Ramesh maintained that his actions had the sanction of the Union cabinet, which had met last week and laid down that India should not accept any legally binding agreement at “this" stage. It had also laid down that India would not accept absolute emission cuts (which is different from India’s voluntary commitment to reduce the energy intensity of carbon emissions).

According to a member of the negotiating team who did not want to be identified, India had three reservations on any legally binding commitment. These relate to the content, penalty of non-compliance and monitoring of compliance—all issues on which there is very little consensus at the moment.

The ongoing negotiations have so far not thrown up any concrete commitments and a global deal is likely to elude the countries once again.

Sangeeta Singh of Mint, AFP and PTI also contributed to this story.