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18 July, 2008

Whether UPA government stands or falls, the nuclear deal will stay

When Communist Party of India (Marxist) General Secretary Prakash Karat flew to Lucknow to seek Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Mayavati’s blessing for his campaign to oust Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, his friend and Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu N. Ram was in New Delhi for an interview with Bharatiya Janata Party’s Prime Minister-in-waiting L. K. Advani.

The newspaper carried the report of the one-hour in-depth interview in two instalments on Friday, July 11, 2008 (“In the name of energy autonomy, you are surrendering our strategic autonomy”) and Saturday, July 12, 2008 ("Coalition dharma means whatever is agreed upon in a common minimum programme should be implemented”).

The Advani interview is politically as significant as one conducted by The Hindu with Mahatma Gandhi in the last century. The country was still under colonial rule at the time and The Hindu was one of the newspapers championing the cause of freedom.

The Gandhi interviewed was conducted not by the paper’s editor but by B. Shiva Rao, who headed its bureau in New Delhi for many years. The British government was considering some proposals for reform and wanted to know in advance how Gandhiji would respond to them. With the help of a senior ICS officer, Sir Benegal Narasinga Rau, the Viceroy framed a set of questions and passed them on to Shiva Rao.

Shiva Rao, who was Narasinga Rau’s younger brother, himself revealed this many years later.

Advani’s replies to Ram’s questions make it clear that any interruption in the process of operationalization of the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal, resulting from the Left’s withdrawal of support to the UPA government, will be short-lived.

If Manmohan Singh wins the confidence vote on July 22, there is nothing to stop the UPA government from going ahead with that process. If it fails to win the confidence vote, the UPA will have to bow out without completing the process. It will be for the next government to decide what to do.

Since the current Lok Sabha may not be able to throw up an alternative government, the UPA’s defeat may lead to immediate elections. Even if the government wins the confidence vote, it is likely to call early elections at a time considered favourable to it. This may well be later this year.

If the UPA leaves office after operationalizing the nuclear deal, even if it loses the elections, the agreement will remain in force as the successor government will find it difficult to repudiate an international agreement without impairing the country’s credibility in the comity of nations.

If the UPA leaves office without operationalizing the deal, the next government will have the option of pulling out or at least not going ahead with the remaining processes. Given the current political scenario, the next government will be headed by either the Congress or the BJP. Karat’s predecessor, Harkishen Singh Surjeet, was able to prop up minority governments because there were many parties which were not willing to back either the Congress or the BJP. That stage is over. Now there is no party left which has not worked with either of them. Some parties have actually worked with both.

Advani told Ram that if he became the Prime Minister he would seek re-negotiation of the nuclear deal. If the US rejected the suggestion, he would consider amending the Atomic Energy Act. The idea is to put in position a domestic law, which lays down what India should do, to overcome the effects of the Hyde Act, which is a US domestic law that lays down what US government should do. Advani did NOT say his government will scrap the deal.

Karat’s main objection to the deal is that it paves the way for strategic relationship between India and the US, which may include military ties with Israel as well. Advani favours strategic relationship. He told Ram that the last BJP-led government had initiated talks with the US not for a nuclear deal but for a strategic relationship. As for Israel, it was BJP leader A.B.Vajpayee, who, as External Affairs Minister in the Janata Party government, decided to establish diplomatic relations with that country.

Barak Obama, who opposed certain provisions of the Indo-US deal in the Senate, does not now favour any changes in it. This means end of the Bush presidency does not mean end of the deal.

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