New Delhi: Efforts to radically overhaul India’s stance on climate change have split the country’s negotiating team down the middle, while two of the key opposition parties have decided to sharpen their attacks on the line adopted by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA).

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government may find it difficult to hold on to its new negotiating position after senior Congress leaders signalled their discomfort.

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These developments come less than 50 days before the crucial meeting in Copenhagen in December to negotiate a new climate change deal, where developed nations such as the US are pushing China and India to make concessions on their current stand.

India has so far argued that efforts to curb emissions should be in proportion to a country’s historical record measured in per capita terms. This would imply that India and other developing countries are well below the emission levels of industrialized countries. Hence, developed countries have to not only make substantive emission cuts but also transfer technology and provide finance required by developing countries towards curbing emissions.

The key proponent of a change in the negotiating position is Jairam Ramesh, minister of state, ministry of environment and forests (MoEF). The gist of his stand is that India should delink finance and technology from pursuing any national mitigation objectives. This would distance it from the developing nations in the Group of 77 (G-77) and bring India closer to the Group of Twenty (G-20), the new multilateral forum that has virtually replaced the Group of Eight (G-8) and includes Brazil, Russia, India and China.

However, key members of India’s negotiating team have differed with Ramesh and have become more strident in recent weeks after they were caught by surprise when the minister publicly signalled a shift even as negotiations were under way in Bangkok under the aegis of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

“Interlocutors at negotiations are being given a totally different brief while the situation is completely different here," said a senior Indian negotiator, who did not want to be identified.

The negotiator added that without any link to finance and technology on mitigation, it is like an “unconditional surrender".

The brief given to the Indian delegation before the Bangkok meeting from 28 September to 9 October and reviewed by Mint, says that “there should be no uncompensated commitments on GHG (greenhouse gases) mitigation by developing countries". It also says that all costs of investment and technology transfer during the lifetime of mitigation actions should be underwritten by developed countries.

Policy shift: Environment minister Jairam Ramesh. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint

Ramesh did not respond to several efforts to reach him.

Matters came to a head on Monday, when The Times of India reported a communication between Ramesh and Prime Minister Singh, wherein the minister reiterated his suggestion to effect a change in the country’s negotiating stance. The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) conceded that a proposal had been received though no decision had yet been taken.

Harish Khare, media adviser to Singh, said: “The minister has made a proposal and it is for a public discussion. The matter will be discussed at various and appropriate levels. Parliament will be taken into account before any shift in India’s policies. The matter will be debated in Parliament."

Meanwhile, political opposition to the proposed change in India’s negotiating position hardened, with even senior Congress leaders expressing misgivings. Officially, however, Abhishek Singhvi, spokesperson for the Congress party, said: “Let us be very clear, clarification really has to be sought from the ministry or from the PMO. This is a matter in respect of which the party has no consultation so far and would not like to comment."

However, a party representative considered close to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, but who did not want to be identified, said, “There is no reason for India to change its stance on climate change. The new stand is exactly opposite to what we have been advocating. Besides, there have been no discussions with the party before adopting the new stand. Now it is for the government to take a decision."

The country’s main Opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party, was critical of any change in stance.

“Earlier, the minister sabotaged India’s negotiations by his comments in an important newspaper Mint when negotiations were going on at Bangkok," said the leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley. “While our interlocutors were adopting a contrary position, it was the American delegation which surprised our negotiators by quoting our minister’s statement."

Brinda Karat, member of Parliament (MP) and politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, has, in a letter to Ramesh, accused the minister of making an abrupt change in stance and bringing it in line with the US position. “This constitutes a reversal of India’s declared position thus far," she said.

The US so far has not made any mitigation commitment and instead has been asking that the Kyoto Protocol—the existing agreement binding developed nations into undertaking mandatory emission cuts and not signed by the US—be dissolved and a new treaty be drafted extending the commitments to all countries, including India and China. In the international arena, India has been asking for 40% emission cuts by 2020 by developed nations but Ramesh, in the interview to Mint, said that 25-40% has been sought.

Ramesh’s letter to the Prime Minister dated 13 October and reviewed by Mint also says that India should not stick to the G-77 alone but be embedded in the G-20.

“The 40% cut demand was submitted by the G-77 to the United Nations, (by) a group that was led by India. Where does the 25-40% cut demand come from," asked the negotiator cited earlier. He added that the Kyoto Protocol is one of the rare international agreements that favours developing nations and it is where the idea of equity and historic responsibility is embedded.

The controversy began with India agreeing to sign a pledge at the Major Economies Forum (MEF) to restrict global warming to an increase of 2 degrees Celsius in July, which could have serious implications for India’s growth strategy and future room for emissions to grow and as reported by Mint on 21 July.

But the shift in stance sparked a crisis when Ramesh wrote to Singh on 13 October that India “must welcome initiatives to bring the US into the mainstream if need be through a special mechanism, without diluting basic Annex1/non annex distinction."

Sunita Narain, director, Centre for Science and Environment, a Delhi-based environment non-governmental organization and a member of the Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change, said: “I think the Indian position is very rooted in equity and for an equitable and fair deal. There is pressure to be more pragmatic, but once the Indian government understands that the US is actually willing to do so little, I don’t think there will be a dilution in its stand."

Liz Mathew and Santosh K. Joy contributed to this story.