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Congress loads its N-weapon

New Delhi, Aug. 24: The Congress has laid down the parameters within which it will negotiate with the Left: no giving in to unreasonable demands and, if push comes to shove, the party is ready for polls.

The contours of the response — variously hinted at over the week by party sources — crystallised after Sonia Gandhi returned from Johannesburg today and waded into a series of confabulations with her crisis managers.

The sheet anchor of the Congress’s stand is “nationalism” — a plank that counters the Left slogan of “anti-imperialism”. “If the Left feels anti-imperialism is its core concern, nationalism is our core concern,” a Congress leader said.

The parameters suggest that the party would make conciliatory gestures but the nuclear deal would be treated as non-negotiable and the “prestige and honour” of the Prime Minister would not be “compromised”.

Working within these limits, Sonia and her team are expected to place on the Left table the “mechanism” for a way out next week.

The Congress’s core committee, which met this evening, will get together again on Monday to firm up a strategy and then sound the Left.

Depending on the response to the proposals, the government will decide whether it should have a debate on the deal in Parliament. The government did not want a debate in a rancorous atmosphere.

Sonia was first briefed by Ahmed Patel, her political secretary and part of the crisis-management team headed by Pranab Mukherjee.

She met Mukherjee an hour before the Congress’s “Friday Club” (core committee) met at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s residence. Sources said the Congress president’s “view” was that some mechanism could still be evolved.

Mukherjee had been working on some options:

Constitute a political committee to study the impact of the US Hyde Act on India’s foreign policy

Draw up a timeline showing the deadlines by which India will have to cap its negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Suppliers Group

Amend the Atomic Energy Act to safeguard against the return of US material and equipment in case the agreement is terminated.

Mukherjee, scheduled to be in Chennai tomorrow, will meet key ally M. Karunanidhi.

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