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Home > India > News > Columnists > Sudheendra Kulkarni

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A sad saga of the prime minister's betrayals

July 18, 2008

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'Donon haath mein laddoo' is one of those earthy and graphic phrases in the colloquial dictionary of Hindi-speaking people that is far superior to its synonym in English: 'Win-win situation'. It is used when an individual or a collective is facing an either-this-or-that dilemma, but finds that both outcomes are beneficial.

Today pundits and plebians alike are unanimous on one point: whatever the outcome of the July 22 confidence vote moved by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance has 'donon haath mein laddoo'. If the government loses the trust vote, the outcome would demoralise the Congress and serve as a shot in the arm for the NDA. In the absence of a 'Third Front', the NDA is clearly the frontrunner in the parliamentary elections, which will have to be held within the next six months.

If, on the other hand, the government wins the trust vote, the outcome would still benefit the BJP and its allies on three counts: a. the legitimacy of that victory would be under a cloud since the people know all about the murky deals going on in Delhi and the unethical means employed by the Congress party to trade horses, the price at which each horse is being traded, etc; b. inflation, the biggest worry of the UPA government, is unlikely to ease by February or March, when elections will be due; c. the anti-incumbency factor against the UPA government, due to its dismal track record on multiple fronts, will have become stronger.

It is not uncommon these days to hear that, for the first time since the first general elections in 1952, the Congress party would be reduced to a double-digit tally in the next Lok Sabha elections. Remember that the BJP already runs more state governments, either on its own or with allies, than the Congress. Remember, also, that the Congress has lost in as many ten assembly elections held after the last Lok Sabha elections in May 2004.

So one knows why the BJP and its allies are expected to have laddoos in both hands irrespective of whether Dr Manmohan Singh's [Images] government survives or not.

But what is less known is that even the prime minister and his coterie of advisors (both in New Delhi and Washington) think that he too has laddoos in both hands as he prepares for the trust vote on July 22. If he wins the trust vote, he and his party will obviously bask in the euphoria generated by the victory, with Dr Singh being projected as a 'strong PM' -- and, possibly, as the Congress party's prime ministerial candidate in the next parliamentary elections.

But how can the PM be said to have a laddoo in his other hand if he loses the trust vote?

Well, first things first: What is meant by laddoo in the PM's other hand even if he loses the trust vote? According to highly placed sources in the government, it means that he has already secured the nuclear deal with the United States and a defeat on July 22 will not alter that reality. In other words, irrespective of whether he will save his government or not, he has already saved the nuclear deal and can therefore go down in history as the prime minister who achieved what pro-dealers in India and America wanted him to achieve.

But how did he manage that? Hereby hangs a tale of duplicity, deceit, betrayal, manipulation and institutional misuse at the highest level of government and the ruling party, the like of which has never been seen in India since Independence.

On July 20, 2005 -- that is, two days after Prime Minister Singh and US President George Bush [Images] issued a joint statement about the Indo-US nuclear deal -- Dr Singh addressed a press conference in Washington before returning to India. Smita Prakash of Asian News International asked him a pointed and prescient question: 'Mr Prime Minister, do you see any resistance coming forward from your allies and the opposition in putting the new India-US policy to practice? And will you seek a parliamentary consensus or approval to the new direction you seem to be taking in foreign policy?'

Dr Singh's reply was categorical, and befitting the prime minister of the world's largest democracy. 'Well, the Parliament in our country is sovereign,' he said. 'It goes without saying that we can move forward only on the basis of a broad national consensus.'

But look at the downhill road Dr Singh has traversed from then to July 20, 2008. Today is there a 'broad national consensus' in India in support of the Indo-US nuclear deal? No sane person can give an affirmative answer. And yet the PM has chosen to 'move forward' on the nuclear deal.

To know how far, indeed, he has moved forward by flouting his own assurance of adhering to the 'broad national consensus', it is instructive to refer to a front-page report by Radhika Ramaseshan in The Telegraph, Kolkata, on July 16. Titled 'Sink or survive, deal done', and quoting 'a highly placed official', the report said: 'The deal is 'done', whether the UPA survives the trust vote or not. The safeguards agreement, to be put before nuclear watchdog IAEA's board of governors at a special August 1 meeting, would stay on course, unaffected by politics back home... The deal will happen because the government is clear that it is in the supreme national interest. If the government has to go in the process, let it go, the source said. Earlier, sections of the government and a Congress spokesperson had hinted that if the government lost majority, it could withdraw the IAEA agreement.'

A day later, Rahul Gandhi [Images] indirectly corroborated this by telling mediapersons in Amethi that 'the nuclear deal is more important than the government. The prime minister has taken the risk in the interest of the nation and if the government falls in the process, so be it." It is revealing that The Telegraph report has not been contradicted by the government so far.

If The Telegraph report is true, it means that the prime minister has flouted another solemn assurance he had given in Washington three years ago -- namely, that he no longer believes that Parliament is 'sovereign', and that even its verdict against his government on July 22 would have no bearing on the nuclear deal because it is already 'done'. The duplicity and deceitfulness of his government becomes clearer when we revisit some of the important milestones in the deal's journey in the past three years.

Firstly, Dr Singh had no mandate to go ahead with the Indo-US nuclear deal since it was not included in the Common Minimum Programme of the UPA, which was jointly drafted by the Congress and Left leaders and on the basis of which the Left parties agreed to provide outside support the UPA government. Without the Left support, the UPA government would not have survived in office for four years.

Secondly, ever since the Singh-Bush joint statement of July 18, 2005, the Left parties' opposition to the nuclear deal was consistent and grew stronger with the passage of time. The CPI-M was unwilling to allow the government to start negotiations with the IAEA on the draft safeguards agreement in September 2007, but both Dr Singh and Sonia Gandhi [Images] pleaded with Prakash Karat and his comrades: 'Please allow the government to begin negotiations with the IAEA. We will not finalise the draft safeguards agreement without taking into account the findings of the UPA-Left committee to study all aspects of the nuclear deal.'

According to CPI-M sources, both Dr Singh and Sonia Gandhi separately told Karat, 'Trust my word.'

An added, albeit unrelated, argument was brought into this plea. 'Gujarat assembly elections are round the corner. Our common goal should be to defeat Narendra Modi [Images]. How can you damage the unity of secular forces by wanting to withdraw support to our government now on the issue of the nuclear deal?'

CPI-M leaders believed in the assurance given by Dr Singh and Sonia Gandhi. However, that trust was betrayed when the government finalised the draft safeguards agreement and sent it to the IAEA secretariat without bothering to obtain the findings of the UPA-Left committee, which, under the chairmanship of External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, had held as many as nine meetings between September 2007 to June 2008. These were not 'talk-shop' meetings.

The Left parties have recently published the notes exchanged between them and the UPA representatives in each of these meetings. Anyone who goes through this highly educative 202-page document would be impressed by the meticulous research done by the Left parties on all aspects of the nuclear deal.

Thirdly, on the day when the Left parties finally withdrew support to the UPA government -- and the trigger for this was provided by the prime minister himself, who said on his way to the G-8 summit to Japan [Images] that the government would go to the IAEA with the draft safeguards agreement 'soon', thereby making a mockery of his own assurance to the Left parties. When Pranab Mukherjee was asked by reporters whether the government, which had already become a minority government, would go to the IAEA before securing a trust vote in Parliament, his reply was categorical: No, the government would go to the IAEA only after securing a vote of confidence in Parliament.

To further drive home his point, he even stated that he was giving this assurance after telephonically speaking to the prime minister in Japan. Even this assurance was violated. In the process, the PM administered a nasty snub to his minister, who ought to have resigned after this episode. After all, the episode revealed that only one of the two -- Dr Singh or Mukherjee -- could have been truthful.

Fourthly, the government consistently refused to show the draft safeguards agreement to the Left parties in their internal deliberations on the plea that it was a 'classified' document. Indeed, Mukherjee said so even in his press conference after the Left withdrew support to the government. However, the cat was out of the bag when Karat challenged the government to disclose who had decided the document to be 'classified' -- the IAEA secretariat or the Indian government.

The same evening the document was up on the Internet, making a travesty of the UPA government's claim and confirming doubts that it wanted to hide the document's contents from Indian political parties and the Indian public.

Fifthly, after his first meeting with Bush in Washington in July 2005, Dr Singh had assured Parliament that India will accept only the 'same responsibilities and obligations as other advanced nuclear States like the US.' Speaking in the Lok Sabha on July 29, 2005, he said: 'We shall undertake the same responsibilities and obligations as... the US'; 'we expect the same rights and benefits" as the US'; and 'India will never accept discrimination.'

Today, anybody who reads the draft safeguards agreement with the IAEA would aver that the PM's assurance has been flouted. The IAEA does not recognise India as a Nuclear Weapons State on part with, and having the same rights and obligations as, the five recognised NWSs -- USA, Russia [Images], Britain, France [Images] and China. There are many other infirmities in the draft safeguards agreement and the 123 Agreement with the USA that compromise India's strategic security, without in any way ensuring India's energy security.

However, that is not the main subject of this column. Suffice it to say that the PM is rushing headlong to meet the timetable set by the Bush presidency and the domestic political process in America. His haste itself has severely debilitated India's bargaining position vis-a-vis the United States and other countries.

The sixth and most damning betrayal has come in the form of what has been revealed by the report in The Telegraph. A minority government has not only gone to the IAEA before seeking a trust vote, but has now concluded that the deal is to be a reality even if it is defeated on the floor of the House! Responding to this report, the BJP on July 17 issued a strongly worded protest in which, among other things, it demanded 'a categorical assurance from the prime minister that the draft safeguards agreement will be withdrawn from the IAEA in the event of his government losing the trust vote in the Lok Sabha.'

The government, however, seems to be in no mood to oblige. Its view on the matter was quite graphically -- and, let me add, arrogantly -- articulated by a highly placed official source: "The nuclear deal has already fled the shores of India. And India does not have an Extradition Treaty with Austria to bring it back." (Vienna, Austria's capital, is the headquarters of the IAEA.)

All the above six betrayals are part of a conspiracy to make the outcome of the trust vote irrelevant to an international deal which, as the BJP has pointed out in its statement of July 17, 'has serious implications for India's national security in perpetuity.' The BJP has rightly asked the government why it has hurriedly sent a team of officials to meet the IAEA secretariat in Vienna for a meeting on July 18 -- barely four days before the trust vote in Parliament on July 22. It has also demanded that 'all further action in respect of the nuclear deal be suspended by the government until it proves its majority on the floor of the House, in keeping with the moral standards and political norms of parliamentary democracy.'

But does the Congress care for moral standards when, according to CPI leader A B Bardhan, it is indulging in horse-trading by offering Rs 25 crore to each non-UPA MP willing to support the government? When it is trying to seek the support of five MPs imprisoned for their role in heinous crimes?

And does the prime minister care for norms of parliamentary democracy when he has, with his brinkmanship, destabilised his own government and forced his party to resort to the most corrupt practices known in the history of Parliament in order to ensure its survival on July 22. The only thing he seems to care for is laddoos in both hands; and he seems to think that he will have at least one, the nuclear deal, even if he loses the other -- his government.

It is high time his supporters, and supporters of the nuclear deal, cared for the grave implications of all that Dr Singh has done for India's democracy, India's strategic autonomy and India's honour.

Sudheendra Kulkarni, a BJP activist, was an aide to then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Comments are welcome at sudheenkulkarni@gmail.com


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