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'For PM Indo-US N-deal was about national honour'

May 08, 2014 12:35 IST

Former media advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Dr Sanjay Baru, author of the controversial book The Accidental Prime Minister that put Dr Singh in the dock over his alleged lack of assertiveness on policy issues, however points out that it was during the Indo-US nuclear deal discussions that the prime minister put his foot down and even staked his political future ‘for the honour of commitment’. Bikash Mohapatra reports.

Dr Manmohan Singh’s tenure as the Indian prime minister is in its final stages.

What will be his legacy, is a tricky question.

The optimists will remember him as an economist par excellence who, during his tenure as the finance minister, opened the gates for globalisation and privatisation.

The sceptics, on the other hand, would assess him as a silent leader, who was found to be lacking on each occasion he was supposed to be answerable. His critics won’t hesitate to blame Dr Singh as the chief reason behind the abject failure of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government in its second term.

However, for an impartial observer, there would be at least one instance during his two terms as the country’s prime minister where Dr Singh proved he could be assertive if and when he wanted to.

And that pertains to the US-India civil nuclear deal, also known as the 123 agreement.

It is imperative here to state that at one stage during its signing, Dr Singh staked his political future and was even willing to quit.

The deal, seen as a watershed in the bilateral relations between the two countries, had its share of roadblocks, taking more than three years to come to fruition.

While the US House of Representatives and the Senate passed the bill in the space of three days (following an amendment), allowing India to purchase nuclear fuel and technology to fulfill its soaring energy demands, the same faced stiff opposition in the Indian Parliament.

The UPA's Left Front allies didn’t approve of the same and eventually withdrew support to the govrnment. Dr Singh’s government faced a vote of confidence in mid-2008, something it survived by a whisker (19 votes, to be precise).

The deal was eventually signed and approved by the International Atomic Energy Agency a few weeks later, with Dr Singh visiting the United States in September that year to celebrate a new chapter in the relationship between the two countries.

What is it that made an otherwise gullible Dr Singh stick to his ground on this issue?

If Sanjaya Baru, author of the recently released book The Accidental Prime Minister is to be believed, there’re two reasons as to why the deal became so important.

“First, it had already been approved by the Cabinet and signed with another country. So, it was a question of national honour,” explained Baru.

“If the world came to believe that the decision taken by the council of ministers, of a country like India, cannot be taken at face value -- because you don’t know if the government actually means it or not -- the country’s reputation was at stake,” he continued, adding, “The Union Cabinet had approved the deal and we had communicated to the US that we were ready to sign it”.

“It is only after that that the Left threw in a spanner.

“It would have been terrible for India. Which country would have taken the Indian government seriously if we failed to deliver on a commitment?”

The former media advisor to Dr Singh, who was interacting with mediapersons during the launch of his book in Mumbai on Wednesday, proceeded to explain the other as a pragmatic consideration.

“The second reason was that fact that he came around to the view, that at the end of the day, it was the only initiative that had come to be identified with him in the public imagination,” said Baru.

“This was the one thing that he did, something he would be remembered for,” he continued, adding, “For almost every other initiative it was either the Congress party or Congress president Sonia Gandhi or the other ministers who were taking the credit.

“I think it was combination of both factors, with the reputation of the country as well as his own legacy at stake, which made him take a firm position on this issue. Alas, that wasn’t the case in other issues.”

Whatever be the reason, it was probably the lone instance which proved that an otherwise reticent Dr Singh could retaliate if the need arose, rather if he chose to.

Bikash Mohapatra in Mumbai