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FIRM BUT WITH RESPECT

The full text of the interview with CPM general secretary Prakash Karat

Q: The UPA-Left panel has had several rounds of discussions on the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement over the past few weeks. Have these discussions narrowed down the differences between the two sides'

A: There have been five meetings of the UPA-Left committee on the nuclear deal. In these meetings, both sides have presented their stand on various aspects of the deal. We have gone into the whole question of the Hyde Act and its implications for the bilateral 123 Agreement. The Left has also talked about its impact on our foreign policy and security-related matters. I think these discussions have helped both sides to understand what are the issues involved and what are the different perceptions.

I think the committee should now attempt to arrive at the findings after all these discussions. This will show how far we have been able to agree or differ.

Q: Will the meeting on November 16 be the last'

A: As far as the Left is concerned, we are ready to meet again if it will help arrive at some findings.

Q: Why is the Left not agreeing to the government going ahead with negotiations with the IAEA'

A: As far as we are concerned, the government taking the next step of negotiating with the IAEA for a safeguards agreement will mean going ahead with the operationalisation of the Indo-US agreement. It is by going to the IAEA for the safeguards agreement that the next step will be taken to go to the Nuclear Suppliers Group and then on to the US Congress for its approval.

It is for the Indian government to negotiate with the IAEA, after which the next steps will be taken by the United States. So when we have asked the government not to proceed further it means (not to take) the next step with the IAEA.

Q: There is a lot of confusion about the timeline for the operationalisation of the agreement. Has the government given the Left the timeline they want to pursue' How flexible is the timeline'

A: Yes, there is a difference between what we say constitutes operationalisation and what the government interprets it as. According to the government, the operationalisation of the agreement will take place only after the US Congress votes on the agreement and then it comes to our Union cabinet for approval. According to us, going to the IAEA is the first step towards operationalisation of the agreement.

No timeline as such has been given by the government, but it is understood that the United States would like India to complete its work with the IAEA and get the clearance from the NSG so that they can take the 123 Agreement to the US Congress in January. The government has not so far gone to the IAEA because the UPA-Left committee has been at work discussing the agreement.

Q: The Left parties have been asking for a debate on the nuclear deal in Parliament which they feel will make clear that the majority in Parliament is against it. In case the BJP changes its stance and supports the agreement, will the Left still try to block the deal'

A: Yes, we would like a debate on the nuclear deal in the coming session of Parliament. We had wanted it in the monsoon session itself but the BJP did not allow a discussion. I hope the BJP will not disrupt the House when the debate comes up. It is important that Parliament expresses its view on such a vital issue.

I do not know if there is any change in the BJP’s stance on the deal. So far, they have been asking for renegotiating the agreement. But the stand of the Left will remain unchanged regardless. Once Parliament expresses its views on the deal, it will be incumbent on the government to take these views into account before proceeding.

Q: At the Hindustan Times Summit on October 12, both Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said they did not favour early elections and the UPA government would complete its full term. Does this mean that the government has decided to put the deal on hold indefinitely'

A: We are also of the view that there should not be early elections and there is no reason why the UPA government should not complete its full term. The remarks made by the Prime Minister and Mrs Sonia Gandhi should be appreciated as they have not made the nuclear deal a make-or-break issue. As it stands, the government has said it will operationalise the deal taking into account the findings of the committee. So, if not indefinitely, they are not proceeding till the committee is there.

Q: Many people feel that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should step down if he cannot go ahead with the agreement, that there is a basic lack of trust between the Left and him…

A: I do not agree. It is true that there has been a basic difference in approach between the Prime Minister and the Left on the nuclear agreement. We recognise that he has strong convictions on the soundness and utility of the agreement. Our differing view on the agreement does not mean that we do not have respect for the Prime Minister. His integrity is unquestioned. As far as I am concerned, I appreciate the frank exchange of views we have had on many occasions.

Q: If the Prime Minister had not publicly dared the Left to withdraw support, would the differences over the nuclear issue have reached a crisis point'

A: If you are referring to The Telegraph interview given by the Prime Minister, that has had no bearing on our stand on the nuclear deal, nor did it precipitate any crisis. The political stand-off arose because of divergent positions and not personal differences.

Q: There is a view that the Prime Minister will lose his prestige if he continues in office (without pushing the deal)…

A: As the Prime Minister heading a coalition government without the backing of a parliamentary majority for the deal, his not going ahead despite his firm conviction that it is a good deal will not detract from his stature. This situation is well understood in coalitional politics around the world.

Q: Powerful sections believe that if the Centre goes slow on the deal, the Left will “smell blood” and make things very difficult for the government for the remaining part of its term on other issues concerning foreign and economic policy. How correct is this perception'

A: It is a wrong perception. Firstly, we would like the government to continue for its full term. Secondly, once we resolve the nuclear deal issue, there are many more programmes and policies that the UPA government has to take up and implement. We would like a proper legislation on social security for the workers of the unorganised sector; the Tribal Forests Land Act has to be notified; there are many foreign policy matters on which we support the government such as the dialogue with Pakistan; we would like the UPA government to take up seriously the women’s reservation bill…. There is no question of smelling blood or hounding the government.

Q: After the last UPA-Left panel meeting, Left leaders have been holding talks with the UNPA leadership. Are these talks aimed at reviving the Third Front'

A: Our talks with the Samajwadi Party and the Telugu Desam Party on the eve of the UNPA meeting were to work out a common approach on the nuclear deal since Parliament is to discuss the issue in the winter session. The UNPA has adopted a resolution asking the government to first discuss in Parliament before going ahead with the deal. There have been occasions on which we have had a common understanding with the SP and TDP such as the Iran nuclear issue. We continue to maintain relations with these parties. But I have not discussed with them the formation of a third front.

Our party wants to build a third alternative based on common policies and programmes. This is a process which will take time.

Q: How do you view relations between the Congress and the Left as a whole in the light of the experience of the last three-and-a-half years' Do you think the CPM’s decision to support the UPA from the outside was a correct one'

A: We are clear that our decision to support the UPA government from the outside was necessary and correct. This political arrangement required a degree of cooperation between the Congress and the Left at the national level. Despite our basic differences with the Congress on a number of policy matters and differing class viewpoints, this arrangement has worked for the last three-and-a-half years. You should also remember that with parties like the DMK, RJD and Sharad Pawar, who are partners of the UPA, we have had relations for a much longer time.

Q: You have said that for the CPM, imperialism is as dangerous as communalism. Does this new formulation indicate that keeping the BJP out of power will not be the sole consideration of the CPM in the case of a hung Lok Sabha after the next general elections'

A: Our last party congress held in April 2005 had highlighted the danger of imperialist influence growing in India. While we accord priority to the fight against communalism, we cannot ignore the danger posed by imperialism to national sovereignty.

For the first time, issues of foreign policy, security and defence are being widely debated in the context of a strategic alliance with the United States. We have succeeded in bringing them onto the national agenda. There has been a wrong notion that such matters do not concern the people and should not be brought into the domestic political debate.

I am sure that the questions thrown up by the Indo-US strategic alliance will come up even after the next general elections. Anyone who wants to form the next government in India will have to define its stand on these issues before the people during the elections.

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