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Political implications of the NSG waiver
Neerja Chowdhury
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September 08, 2008

Dr Manmohan Singh [Images] has emerged as the Congress' prime ministerial nominee for 2009. That is the first political implication of the Nuclear Suppliers Group waiver. Last time, in 2004, he was nominated to the top job after Sonia Gandhi [Images] declined the country's premiership.

In the new situation that has emerged it will be very difficult for the Congress to have anyone else lead the party at the hustings. Sonia Gandhi had hinted at the possibility when two weeks ago she answered the question, whether he could be PM again next year, with a "why not?"

Rahul Gandhi [Images] would have been a natural choice but the young Gandhi is not ready and would like more time to discover India and familiarise himself with the party. Sonia Gandhi will undoubtedly lead the party's campaign but it will be difficult to project her as the Congress' future PM, given her renunciation in 2004.

To pitch for someone else would be tantamount to negating the achievements of Singh and the nuclear breakthrough he has managed. So would an ambiguity on the issue. Manmohan Singh had staked his personal prestige on the Indo-US nuclear deal, and if the Congress wants to mount a 'Vote do bijlee lo' campaign it is planning to launch -- and to deflect attention from inflation which is agitating people -- it cannot do it by ignoring Dr Singh.

Dr Singh has never been a crowd puller. His election meetings have been small. Hardly any party people go to meet him. But as things have turned out, the Congress stands behind him today and Manmohan Singh walks with his head held higher than it has been in the last four and a half years. It is ironical that the final push by him for the deal -- made because he had nothing to lose and was not likely to be made PM again -- should be the one which is likely to make him the party's PM nominee again.

The NSG waiver has sharpened the political battlelines in India. The battle will now be between the Bharatiya Janata Party's L K Advani [Images], Manmohan Singh and the Bahujan Samaj Party's Mayawati [Images], the likely prime ministerial candidates. However, Indian politics being what it is, it is not necessary that one of them will occupy the hot seat in South Block.

The Vienna [Images] waiver may also determine the timing of the general elections. The Congress party will have to take a political call on whether to plump for elections immediately so as to milk the deal. The party hopes that it will make a difference with the urban middle class, and a section in the Congress, including the prime minister is learnt to be in favour of elections by the year end.

But the Congress party is not ready. The party's UPA allies are adamant -- and Lalu Yadav leads this brigade -- that the term of the 14th Lok Sabha should not be cut short, and NSG waiver is unlikely to change that view. The Rashtriya Janata Dal is unlikely to come back with 24 seats it holds today, which has made Lalu a powerful player in Delhi [Images].

In any case, many in the ruling party suspect that the October 17 to November 21 session of Parliament would be the last one, leading to the dissolution of Parliament, with elections possible in February next year.

This is because transacting parliamentary business is now going to become increasingly difficult, with the opposition sharpening its attack after the deal. Even before the waiver -- its fineprint is yet to be studied -- both the BJP and the Left had unsheathed their knives, following the release of the 'secret' note sent by the US State Department to the US Congress, that the US would terminate the deal if India tested and it would not transfer sensitive dual use technology to India -- which was different from the assurances given by the prime minister in Parliament. The BJP had threatened a privilege motion against the PM, the Left a no-confidence motion against his ministry.

The second problem is the pressure which the Samajwadi Party has stepped up to extract its pound of flesh for its support in the trust vote. While the SP has piped down on its demand to enter the government, Amar Singh [Images] expressed doubts about a Congress-SP electoral alliance, offering the Congress only eight Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh [Images].  

All this may be nothing more than pressure tactics, for the SP has made it clear that it would continue to support the UPA. The SP leaders are worried about the cases against them and Mayawati is bombarding the Centre with case after case against Mulayam and company to be referred to the Central Bureau of Investigation.

The third political implication of the deal is the firming up of the third pole of the polity which had seemed shaky not so long ago. Those opposed to the BJP and National Democratic Alliance had little option but to support the Congress and the UPA but this may now undergo a change at the national level, with the possibility of a third alternative on the horizon.

Mayawati dialled Communist Party of India-Marxist General Secretary Prakash Karat [Images] last week to make sure that the comrades were not getting second thoughts about the SP. In an hour long conversation, Karat is believed to have assured her that the Left would back her. The CPI-M has decided to go with Chandrababu Naidu [Images] -- as opposed to Chiranjeevi [Images] -- and the Telugu Desam Party chief is also exploring the possibility of a tie-up with J Jayalalitha.

Its early days yet to assess how -- and if at all -- the Muslims are going to react to the deal. But this is something to be watched carefully. Can they turn to Mayawati, who has opposed the deal repeatedly, now that she is backed by the Left, which confers legitimacy on her. And if this works in UP, it could have a spin off effect in other parts of the country. A Dalit-Muslim partnership at the ground level, however, is easier said than done, for the leadership of the Muslim community has largely been in the hands of the upper castes of the community. But if it clicks, it could spell huge trouble for the Congress.

With the nuclear deal, India, clearly, is entering into a closer relationship with the US. This could entail sending Indian troops to Afghanistan, Iraq. It will also become that much more difficult for India to take positions which are at variance with the US foreign policy positions. In a unipolar world and a post-9/11 scenario, with the 'clash of civilizations' thesis guiding decision making in western capitals, there would be pressure on India to distance itself from some Islamic countries which have been its friends for the last 60 years.

How this impacts the psyche of Muslims inside India needs to be seen, for many are uneasy about India entering the American orbit. As it is we are seeing a growing alienation amongst young Muslims and the rising strength of Students Islamic Movement of India -- with its 1 lakh cadre -- reflects this trend. The terror attacks, at one time confined to the Kashmir valley, are now taking place all over the country. The concerns of the Muslims cannot be ignored, if for nothing else, then for the sheer number they represent in a democracy.

In 1991, a paradigm shift took place in the economy when India went in for a policy of structural adjustments under Dr Manmohan Singh. This time he has architected a shift that is political in nature and we are only just beginning to assess its fallout.

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