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Internal India tiff over nuclear pact with U.S. could spur early elections

Leftist parties threaten to withhold support for the government if it acts to finalize the deal.

August 23, 2007|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

NEW DELHI — The political tussle in India over a landmark nuclear cooperation deal with the United States has reached a fevered stage, prompting warnings that the dispute could topple the Indian government and force early elections.

Raucous debates in Parliament and recriminations in the media have rocked the ruling coalition of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has staked much of his country's foreign policy and his own political capital on the agreement going through.

The accord would allow American companies to sell and share civilian nuclear technology with India, which would, in exchange, open some of its reactors to international inspections for the first time.

Although the pact has generated opposition here since its inception, the protest broke wide open in the last few days after a group of communist parties demanded that the government put off upcoming talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency aimed at putting final touches on aspects of the deal.

The leftists do not belong to the governing coalition put together by Singh's Congress Party. However, their support has been crucial to propping up the government, and their opposition presents Singh with his most serious political crisis since he assumed power three years ago.

The leftists' objections to the deal draw on a deep well of suspicion toward Washington, which New Delhi has historically held at arm's length. Although the agreement has been hailed by many as the most important symbol of improving ties between the world's two most populous democracies, critics on the left say it tethers India too closely to American foreign policy and interests.

Attacks have also come from the right, which portrays the deal as an infringement on national sovereignty because of ambiguous provisions that could penalize India if it conducted nuclear weapons tests.

Even by the rough-and-tumble standards of Indian politics, the standoff over the nuclear accord has produced extraordinary scenes of rancor in recent days.

On Friday, George Fernandes, a former defense minister from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, accused Singh of lying to the nation about the deal and said that if the prime minister were a political leader in China, he would be shot.

This week, India's ambassador to Washington, Ronen Sen, retorted by comparing opponents of the accord to "headless chickens." The remark caused such an uproar in Parliament on Tuesday that the session had to be suspended.

For his part, the usually mild-mannered Singh -- who was practically shouted down in Parliament last week -- has dug in his heels.

"I believe it was my destiny to be the prime minister," he said in an interview in the latest issue of the weekly newsmagazine India Today.

"I have the courage of conviction."

Some political commentators warn that the government could either fall or call snap elections because of the impasse. But the leftists are believed to be loath to push Singh so far because of a potential backlash against their parties. In a poll published in Wednesday's Hindustan Times, a large majority of respondents said they did not want early elections, but about one-third also expressed support for the left's stand on the nuclear deal.

"The problem . . . is that neither side agrees with the other, but neither wants to break with the other, because that would possibly lead to the government's fall and elections," political analyst Pran Chopra said. "So the question over the next few days is how to find a reasonable, acceptable way of continuing to wait while the problem sorts itself out."

Top leaders of one of the main communist parties convened a two-day meeting Wednesday to map out their strategy.

One possibility is that the left-wing parties withdraw their support of the ruling coalition without asking for a vote of no confidence, which would keep the coalition in power but as a weakened minority government. The left could then concentrate on shoring up support in advance of elections.

"It is trying to milk it for all that it is worth, for use in the day that an election does take place," Chopra said, adding, "I don't see this government lasting out its term."

Elections are due in 2009, but could come sooner if the government continues to flounder.

One face-saving measure under discussion would be for the government to agree to the formation of a committee to evaluate the implications of the Hyde Act, the U.S. law that enabled a nuclear accord to be struck with India.

The act created an unprecedented -- and, American critics of the deal say, unwise -- exception to long-standing U.S. policy not to cooperate on nuclear issues with any nations, such as India, that are not members of the global nuclear nonproliferation regime.


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