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Opposition secret hand in nuke deal

Washington, Aug. 12: Goodbye consensus, welcome bipartisanship.

An untold story of the negotiations that led to the conclusion last month of a 123 Agreement to operationalise the Indo-US nuclear deal was the steady advice given to Indian negotiators by Opposition leaders with foreign policy experience who also have a good grasp of the issues involved in the deal.

Such behind-the-scenes bipartisanship in promoting “national interest” on an issue that successive governments in New Delhi will be seized of for the next decade, at least, is believed to have been partly behind Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s surprise decision to call the Left’s bluff on the nuclear deal in an exclusive interview to The Telegraph during the weekend.

According to sources in New Delhi and Washington, who are familiar with intricate details of the nuclear negotiations with the US, private advice to Indian negotiators from at least two Opposition leaders steadily came in even as their parties were opposing disagreeable elements of the deal in public.

These sources said that at one point during the negotiations, it was questionable who was taking a tougher line with the Americans: foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon or the Opposition leaders he was briefing.

At one meeting in New Delhi, Menon, who regularly maintained a working equation with key Opposition leaders since he became personally involved in the negotiations with the Bush administration, outlined the “red lines” in the talks.

An Opposition leader cautioned Menon against having red lines in negotiations. “You have to give something in order to get something in return,” he said, to the foreign secretary’s surprise.

This NDA leader, who has an international profile because of his work for the environment and protection of water resources, said that if negotiators held inflexible positions, the talks were bound to fail. “Red lines are the same as surrender,” he said.

Another NDA leader, who has acquired the iconic status of an elder statesman, personally congratulated the negotiators for doing a “good job” even as his party was withholding judgement on the 123 Agreement.

This leader, who is now an oracle of sorts and has a decades-long personal equation with senior members of the Indian Foreign Service, was making a clear distinction between the outcome of the negotiations with the Americans and his own party’s “political” opposition to the UPA on the nuclear deal.

In Washington, NDA leaders visiting the US have had free and open discussions with Indian ambassador Ronen Sen since July 18, 2005.

Additionally, BJP stalwarts like Jaswant Singh and Arun Shourie have been making their concerns and demands clear in conversations with the Americans both in India and during visits to the US since the nuclear deal was announced two years ago.

Clearly, the Prime Minister was aware of all this while telling the Left that enough was enough.

One Bush administration official said Washington would not have gone “this far” in accommodating New Delhi if there was no “fundamental” bipartisanship in India on relations with the US.

He compared the situation with that in the US where, on August 4, both Houses of the US Congress approved — with support from Democrats — the Bush administration’s authority to wiretap terror suspects without court oversight even as the Democratic Party was publicly opposing such authority.

“If the relevant Opposition parties in India had been dogmatically opposed to relations with the US, there was no way we would have gone this far on the deal,” the official said.

The implication was that the Left was irrelevant. He added that the “relevant” opposition “may have differences on aspects of the 123 Agreement. But fundamentally they agree that Indo-US relations are important”, he added.

The Prime Minister, too, it would seem from all this, believes that opposition from the Left to the nuclear deal is irrelevant, at least for now.

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