The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Behind smiles, Sonia sits with nuke button
- Govt gains time but faces tough choice

New Delhi, Oct. 9: The façade of bonhomie between the government and the Left was on display today with a joint committee scheduling its next meeting for October 22, but the uncertainty over the coalition’s survival will not go away till Sonia Gandhi takes a final call.

“In the next few days”, she will have to decide whether to put the Indo-US nuclear deal on the backburner or give a green signal for negotiations with the IAEA, well placed sources indicated today.

At their meeting with Sonia on Monday evening, CPM leaders Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury made it clear that the government had only two options: to save the government and forget the deal or lose both the government and the deal. The third option — of losing the government but saving the deal — would not be feasible.

If the government tried to exercise that option by going to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Left would immediately pull the plug, rendering any international negotiations “politically untenable” even if constitutionally valid, it was conveyed.

The “third option” is being pushed by powerful sections within the government who want to seal the India-specific safeguards agreement before the government gets into election mode.

Their calculation is that once the safeguards agreement is in place, the deal would be kept alive even if the next two steps — the Nuclear Suppliers Group waiver and the US Congress vote — are not completed.

More important, they argue, if the government desists from going to the IAEA it would spell a complete “surrender” to the Left, and the Manmohan Singh government would be at the mercy of the communists for the rest of its term.

“The Congress has to decide whether it prefers to survive that way or go in for early elections,” a government source said.

The sources conceded that it was not an easy decision for the Congress chief to take.

On the one hand, most party MPs as well as important allies such as Lalu Prasad, Sharad Pawar and M. Karunanidhi are against early polls and would much rather put the nuclear deal on the backburner than risk the withdrawal of the Left’s support.

On the other, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has placed his prestige on pursuing the deal and any “reneging” would harm India’s “credibility” in the world outside.

Both sides are exerting pressure on the Congress leadership and it is not yet clear who will win.

Sonia did not reveal her cards to Karat and Yechury last night. The meeting, sources said, had not been held at the behest of Sonia but at the request of the CPM leaders. They had sought an appointment to personally convey to her the party central committee’s decision on the nuclear deal issue.

The CPM leaders underlined that the Left was not at all keen on early elections and felt it would not serve the interests of either the UPA or the Left or indeed the country. However, their aversion to polls did not mean any change of stance vis-à-vis the nuclear deal.

The government should not take “the next steps” in a hurry and this included starting formal negotiations with the IAEA. In case the government ignored this warning, the CPM and its allies would have no option but to withdraw support.

Sonia, sources said, gave a patient hearing and promised to get back to the Left within a few days. Neither side wants the uncertainty over the government’s survival to carry on indefinitely, the sources added.

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