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What if there is a free vote?
Swapan Dasgupta
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July 16, 2008

The rules and conventions of Indian parliamentary democracy don't permit members of Parliament the luxury of either a free or a conscience vote. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the three-line whip was temporarily shelved and MPs allowed a free vote on the Indo-US nuclear deal next week, what would be the outcome? A free vote, by the way, is different from a conscience vote. Whereas a conscience vote rests on the beliefs and preferences of the individual MP, a free vote blends personal beliefs with political compulsions on the ground.

It is difficult to prophesy the numerical outcome of such an exercise in the Lok Sabha. However, what can be said with certainty is that there will be a significant amount of cross-voting. Most important, the faultlines will be markedly different from what the recent political crisis has thrown up.

By and large the Left MPs will be faithful to the Prakash Karat line because they genuinely believe that any strategic proximity with the US is bad for India. It can also safely be assumed that most MPs who depend on Muslim votes for victory will be inclined to give the thumbs-down because of post-9/11 complications. This is not because Indian Muslims have an aesthetic or "green" objection to nuclear power but because circumstances have conspired to link India's elevation to the lower high table of the nuclear club to President George W Bush's [Images] foreign policy. For various reasons, Muslims tend to equate the "war on terror" with a war on Islam.

In the normal course those influenced by the civilisational polarisation would include the bulk of the Samajwadi Party, Lalu Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal and, at a pinch, the Bahujan Samaj Party (though we can never be sure of the impulses that drive Mayawati). It would also include Congress MPs elected from places such as North Bengal, Assam, Kerala [Images], Maharashtra (particularly Mumbai) and the Telangana region of Andhra Pradesh. The less-than forthright support of External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee to the prime minister's initiative can be attributed to the community composition of his Jangipur constituency. Had Mukherjee been elected from, say, South Kolkata or Birbhum (his native place), his attitude may have been markedly different.

Of course, the decision of individual Congress MPs would also be shaped by elements of confused ideology. India's nuclear programme was initiated by Jawaharlal Nehru, given a different turn by Indira Gandhi [Images] and quietly strengthened by Rajiv Gandhi. All three, including Indira, espoused global disarmament but simultaneously kept India away from unequal treaties that imposed a form of nuclear apartheid. This confused inheritance saw Manmohan Singh [Images], K Natwar Singh and the likes of Mani Shankar Aiyar oppose the Pokhran-II test while pragmatists like R Venkatraman supported it enthusiastically.

Manmohan Singh, in particular, has viewed India's nuclear programme not as a strategic asset but as an instrument of economics. He didn't like Pokhran-II because he felt that sanctions would hurt the economy; he wants the nuke deal because he sees colossal economic opportunities coming India's way after the agreement. The prime minister's personal commitment to India's strategic programme is certainly not as pronounced as his faith in the economic spin-offs from the deal. At the same time, it is important to point out that the proposed agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency does not compromise India's strategic interests in any way.

Compared to the Congress's ambivalence on the nuclear question -- a reason why it can swing both ways -- the Bharatiya Janata Party has been unflinching in its belief that India must be at the heart of the N-weapons club. Atal Bihari Vajpayee made this "core belief" of the BJP into national policy in 1998. Although there was a great deal of subsequent faltering -- the BJP hates to be reminded of the generous distance Jaswant Singh was willing to travel to accommodate the Clinton Administration's non-proliferation concerns -- it is safe to assume that any BJP flexibility is dependant almost exclusively on preserving the sanctity of the strategic programme.

The IAEA document suggests that India's N-weapons programme will secure implicit international recognition which is why Advani has been careful to not criticise it. In fact, the BJP's outbursts have been reserved for the Hyde Act and the murky circumstances of India's approach to the IAEA. Advani has stressed the ethical impropriety of the Government approaching IAEA before showing that it still commands a parliamentary majority.

Indeed, on the nuclear deal, the BJP finds itself in the piquant situation of opposing something its core constituency -- unaffected by Muslim angst and shaped by middle class yearnings -- wants. It has become a prisoner of the intemperate positions it took in the early days of the nuke deal.

Like the Akali Dal and Shiv Sena which have endorsed the deal because that is what their social constituencies want, a free vote would see a majority of BJP MPs voting for it. The dissidents would be the maximalists -- those who want India to shun all global agreements because the future belongs to Thorium. This is the ultimate paradox of the N-deal: A majority in the Congress would rather not have the deal and a majority in the BJP would love to have it, now that the military programme has been assured.

Of course, there will be no free vote in Lok Sabha. The trust vote next week will not centre on the N-deal alone. It will be a vote on the government's economic record, its internal security lapses and on the collateral benefits that will accrue to those who side with the government.

It is said that Parliament mirrors the national mood. There are, of course, times when it distorts reality hideously. The three-year kerfuffle over the nuke deal will remain a classic case study of reality evading the truth.

Courtesy: The Pioneer, New Delhi

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