Sunday, July 06, 2008


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SP's U-turn: 24 hours that saved the nuke deal
6 Jul 2008, 0001 hrs IST, Rajeev Deshpande,TNN

There are few better practitioners of the art of making necessity sound like a virtue than Samajwadi Party’s canny general secretary Amar Singh. Quizzed by a Telegu Desam Party leader over SP’s U-turn on the India-US nuclear deal, the bespectacled politician said in matter-of-fact manner: ‘‘In your state, you face Congress. We need power to counter our rival and Congress is not a factor in UP.’’

SP’s dramatic move to desert the Left-UNPA corner and team up with the Congress is yet another telling example of there being no permanent foes in politics. And if politics is also about timing, few can hold a candle to SP leaders Mulayam Singh Yadav and Amar Singh. In just about 24 hours, from Thursday forenoon to Friday noon, they had jumped ship leaving a fractured UNPA and a shocked Left in their wake. ( Watch )

When SP leaders Mulayam Singh Yadav and Amar Singh met their ‘third front’ or UNPA partners on Thursday, the Samajwadis had all but signed their deal with Congress to rescue the nuclear pact. Yet, the meeting which lasted more than four hours, droned on with the discussion moving from inflation to expelled BJP leader Babulal Marandi expounding on the political situation in Jharkhand.

Finally, when the conversation turned to the real reason why TDP’s N Chandrababu Naidu, INLD leader Om Prakash Chautala, Asom Gana Parishad chief Brindaban Goswami and Marandi had gathered at Amar Singh’s Lodhi Road residence in Delhi, SP’s top duo was prepared to be fairly candid. Apart from ‘new facts’ on the nuclear deal the government had placed on the table through National Security Advisor M K Narayanan, the SP could not lose sight of its ‘compulsions’ — shorthand for BSP.

With BSP successfully poaching minority votes from SP in UP and adding upper castes as well to its own SC base, Mayawati’s outfit was showing no signs of a slowing down. She was also busy leaning hard on the SP and despite a handsome 39 MPs in Lok Sabha, SP was locked out of the power game at the Centre, a situation that was growing more acute each passing day -- after being ousted in UP even old courtiers were deserting the SP leaders. Added to these political factors were disproportionate assets case against Mulayam and I-T inquiries into the affairs of Amar Singh and his friends.

In their interactions with the Left, SP leaders have strenuously discounted suggestions that their move towards the Congress could be influenced by the cases filed against them. On one occasion Amar Singh made the point that hardly anyone could be more meticulous in tax payments than he had been, having contributed handsomely to the exchequer. In turn he asked the comrades whether the could there be no view on the deal apart from that offered by the Left.

As the SP-Congress engagement picked momentum after the ill-tempered meeting of the Left-UPA panel on the deal on June 25, the deadlines were fairly self-evident. For one, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would need the political backing, not the least in terms of numbers in Lok Sabha, so that he could deliver a ‘positive’ report on the deal when he met US president George Bush in Japan during the July 7-9 G-8 summit. This was crucial as no Congress ally was ready for sacrificing the government to go to the hustings.

After informing the Americans that the domestic logjam over the deal had been broken, the PM was keen to move the International Atomic Energy Agency for ratification of a safeguards agreement no later than mid-July. He does have a bit more time to do so, but Singh has urged the Congress leadership that the deal be moved to the next stage as soon as possible. ‘‘He has said how long can we wait for Left to change its position when we know that is not possible,’’ said a prime ministerial aide.

Even though not too enthused about taking on the Left over the deal, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi heard out the PM’s arguments. It is possible that she felt that a break with the Left on some issue or the other ahead of the next general election was inevitable. She may also have seen some merit in the argument that a half-done nuclear deal would make the government — and Congress as well — butt of ridicule. Then again, PM’s pressure tactics with careful worded reports on his wish to quit rattled the leadership.

The first public evidence that Congress was looking to mend fences with the Samajwadis came when they were extended an invitation to the dinner hosted by the PM on UPA completing its fourth year in power in May. Amar Singh’s presence was very much noticed even as the PM discreetly suggested that the voluble SP leader have a word with Sonia Gandhi who was seated not too far away. The ice was broken after years of mutual recrimination.

Congress leaders agree that pushing the deal was not really on Sonia’s agenda, with concerns centred around mounting inflation and preparations for critical electoral contests in Jammu and Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh and Delhi slated for later this year. But the PM was determined that he would not let go of the deal — perhaps the only ‘achievement’ he could lay claim to amid rising cries of economic mismanagement and mounting poll losses — which he had negotiated with Bush.

As was the case last year, again during a stand-off on the deal, rumours began doing the rounds that the PM was considering quitting ahead of the G-8 summit. There was no attempt to clarify matters, some would say speculation was fanned, and though ministers who have worked closely with Singh discounted the possibility that the PM would embarrass the party, the pressure did pile up on the Congress leadership. A minister who had been privy to Singh’s angst on a previous occasion said the PM was deeply unhappy over ‘losing face’ but had not really suggested he could call it quits.

In fact, for someone long regarded as ‘non-political’ despite having logged in more than a decade and a half in the political arena, the PM pushed his case quite shrewdly with the Congress leadership, pointing out that the Left was a millstone that had to be got rid of. Party MPs and even general secretaries make no secret of their apprehensions about consequences of substituting the Left with a volatile mix of SP and others like RLD chief Ajit Singh and HD(S) leader H D Deve Gowda.

Given their record for driving hard bargainers, Congress leaders fear that regional leaders may well extract more than their pound of flesh.

With Amar Singh wasting no time in targeting finance minister P Chidambaram and petroleum minister Murli Deora for ‘failing’ to handle inflation, some of these concerns appear well founded. Hitting out at Chidambaram for price rise helps SP claim that it had not lost sight of the ‘aam admi’s’ interests and prevent the deal with Congress appearing totally opportunistic. As for Chidambaram, the FM may well rue his supercilious behavior towards the SP general secretary in the past.

In the last couple of weeks, the SP leaders were in constant touch with Congress with Amar Singh, using his cell phone to good effect despite being in far away Denver for medical check ups. Even before he reached Delhi on June 30, much of the ground work was in place driven by the PM’s keenness on the deal and a preparedness of SP to patch up given the party’s fear that a snap poll in the event of a Left pullout would deliver a massive advantage to the BSP.

The SP’s shift has had a fairly devastating effect on the Left, and more particularly on CPM boss Prakash Karat, whose leadership is now under considerable stress. He has to reconcile to the loss of a long-term ally and while smarting under the realisation that he may not be able to stop the nuclear deal from going ahead. Karat had told Left leaders after speaking to Congress pointsperson Pranab Mukherjee shortly before the June 25 Left-UPA meeting that the government was determined to push the deal. ‘‘We should not be taken by surprise,’’ he said. At the time, given reservations of UPA partners over early elections, his worries appeared over-stated. But the process of prising SP from the ranks of nuclear nay-sayers was in an advanced stage. Karat did smell a rat, but it was too late.

It now remains to be seen whether the nuclear deal can be concluded by the final session of the US Congress in September. Indian officials feel the biggest hurdle is the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group that has to give India a ‘clean’ exception despite India not signing the NPT. If it does, nuclear commerce with Russia and France will begin almost immediately. Pressure will then mount on US legislators not to stand in the way of US firms enjoying similar benefits.

The nuclear drama has significantly reworked the political landscape eight months ahead of the next general elections. It has thrown up new challenges for Opposition NDA that could face UPA in most states. For Congress, the test will be in tackling issues like inflation — the nuclear deal is no panacea for rising food bills.


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