New Delhi, Aug. 18: The Congress is determined to stand by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the face of the Left ultimatum, and till this evening was not inclined to freeze the International Atomic Energy Agency negotiations.
However, pressure from allies, with whom talks are on, may force the party to halt the IAEA parleys — the first of three steps before the Indo-US nuclear deal can come into force.
CPM general secretary Prakash Karat today warned the government of “serious consequences” if it “operationalised” the deal known as the 123 Agreement.
Karat said he would deem the deal to have been “operationalised” if the talks with the IAEA went on, because the inspection regime imposed by the agency would hold “in perpetuity” and bind India for ever.
But a Congress source said that if the party pressed the “pause” button, it would risk undermining Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — who had heavily invested “personal and political capital” in the deal — and the government.
Such a step would mean that even if the government survived, it would lose its “iqbal” (legitimacy) and be “sustained on life-support”.
Given that Manmohan was Sonia Gandhi’s first and so far only choice as Prime Minister, and that she stood by him while the deal was being negotiated and scrutinised by political parties, the Congress was “unlikely” to put his “prestige” on the line, the source said.
A senior Congress leader said the last step before the deal to come into effect — passage in a yes-no vote in the US Congress — was scheduled for mid-December. If the deadline had to be met, there was no question of going slow on the two earlier stages: talks with the IAEA for India-specific safeguards and with the Nuclear Suppliers Group countries for a waiver of the group’s rules on nuclear commerce.
Congress sources said the party and the government were thinking of certain alternative sops for the Left. One, the Centre could call off the joint military exercises with the US, which Left leaders objected to at today’s meeting with Manmohan and Sonia.
Two, the Prime Minister could cancel his planned trip to the US, during which he was expected to visit President George Bush’s ranch. Three, he might visit West Asia.
Congress crisis managers are, however, aware that these may not be enough. The fear of mid-term polls is likely to prompt the allies to push for a solution within the framework of the nuclear deal before Parliament sits on Monday, a source said.
But even if the Congress is forced to halt the IAEA and NSG negotiations — which would virtually kill the deal once the Capitol Hill deadline is missed — sources said the party would try its best to save Manmohan’s face.
Senior Congress leaders were huddled with the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Lalu Prasad tonight at the residence of foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee, the Prime Minister’s chief trouble-shooter on the nuclear deal.
Sonia spoke to the DMK’s M. Karunanidhi today. DMK sources said the party would support the government on any decision it takes and that the concerns raised by the Left could be negotiated.
The Lok Janshakti Party’s Ram Vilas Paswan, too, would be consulted, sources said.
Earlier, after today’s CPM politburo meeting, Sitaram Yechury briefed Pranab and Sonia’s political secretary, Ahmed Patel. Later, Karat delivered his ultimatum to the Prime Minister at his residence, with Sonia, Pranab and Yechury present.
Sources said the Left leaders raised the matter of the Indo-US military exercises scheduled next month.
The Left has opposed military ties with America earlier, too — for instance, during past air force and naval exercises — but the current context has given their objections a “different dimension”, a source said.
The Left leaders seemed particularly worried that the US domestic law, Hyde Act, might override the 123 Agreement and lead to either a termination of the deal or a loss of sovereignty for India. Delhi would then be left in the lurch, bound for ever to IAEA inspections without gaining anything, sources argued.
Soon after the meeting, Pranab summoned foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon to discuss the points raised by the CPM. This was followed by a meeting of the party core committee at 7 Race Course Road.