| Sonia at a power plant site in Jhajjar. (PTI)
Oct. 7: The UPA-Left brinkmanship over the nuclear deal today entered a phase that almost marked the beginning of the endgame.
Sonia Gandhi seemed to paint the Left as an impediment to development at a rally in Haryana, sending the political temperature soaring during the day.
“Whenever we try to implement development programmes, there are elements who create hindrances…. We must understand that they are not only enemies of the Congress but also enemies of development, peace and progress. We should give them a strong and befitting reply,” said Sonia, fresh from a New York trip.
She named neither the CPM nor its allies but the context — the need for electricity — created the impression that she was referring to the Left.
However, the Congress clarified late tonight that the words were meant exclusively for the rally in Haryana, suggesting the real target was the BJP and not the Left that does not have a significant presence in the northern Indian state.
The “informal” clarification — conveyed over the phone to journalists — came almost as an afterthought and apparently followed a meeting of senior leaders in Delhi as feverish speculation swirled around the capital.
When Sonia made the comment, the immediate — and obvious — interpretation was that she had decided to bite the snap-poll bullet and was forcing the Left’s hand. But several central ministers said the statement should also be seen against the backdrop of compulsions to match the Left rhetoric.
The CPM did not immediately respond to Sonia, though junior partners attacked the Congress. Late tonight, Sitaram Yechury, known to be against enforcing early polls, downplayed Sonia’s comments, saying the Congress had as much right to articulate its views as the Left had.
“We have been taking our view on the deal to the people openly. They (the Congress) also have a right to do so. Let the people decide. There is nothing to take umbrage over her remarks,” he said. “They (the Congress) are not questioning our integrity and we are also not doing so.”
The CPM is expected to call a meeting of its politburo on October 18 — possibly in Calcutta to ensure Jyoti Basu’s presence — and the central committee could meet the following day. But sources said the dates could be advanced if talks with the UPA make little headway.
A few hours before Sonia’s speech, UPA’s troubleshooter-in-chief Pranab Mukherjee was playing for more time. Mukherjee met Jyoti Basu and Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee in Calcutta.
Neither side said what was being negotiated. The external affairs minister is best suited to bargain having met US officials in Washington only last week.
The government wants the Left to give it enough time to go to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for an India-specific safeguards agreement — for which the clock has started ticking — even as discussions on the import of the deal continue within the UPA-Left panel.
The UPA government is trying to convince the Left that negotiating the safeguards agreement is not the same as implementing the deal.
The deal is not done till the US Congress passes it through an up-down vote, the UPA has been arguing. Therefore, it wants the Left to wait.
In timelines that it has set for itself, the UPA wants to go to the IAEA by the end of October.
A top CPM source said that was not feasible. “If India negotiates safeguards in perpetuity with the IAEA, it means that the deal can be executed at any time. We do not want such a thing to happen. What is the point in opposing a deal after it has gone through'” he wondered.
The UPA government has said it remains committed to the deal despite the Left’s opposition. Sonia had said at an iftar hosted by the Prime Minister last evening that she was not afraid of going to polls. Her remarks at the public rally today follow that.
Discontent was mounting within the ranks of the Left after Sonia’s public criticism. Leaders were saying that the Congress was on the verge of forcing a mid-term poll and that there was no alternative but to withdraw support to the Manmohan Singh government.
But the break — if it has to happen — has to be timed to suit both sides. The UPA government would like to meet its, and the Bush administration’s, schedules to see the deal through. The CPM will like to be able to explain that the government was collapsing because of its own hurry and not because of the Left’s opposition to the deal.
“The Congress is trying to precipitate an election. It is simply imposing elections on people. If that is the case, we are ready for it,” CPI general secretary A.B. Bardhan said. “We are not opposed to power; we are opposed to high cost of power,” he said.
Troubleshooters for the two sides were still engaged in creating space for a compromise that has shrunk to barely a sliver. Mukherjee had spoken to Basu, Bhattacharjee and Yechury even when he was in the US. Basu is understood to have requested a brief from Mukherjee explaining the deal and the government’s timetable. But a close aide of Basu said in Calcutta that the former chief minister did not ask for a meeting.
The rift between the UPA and the Left has begun widening even as officials started preparing for a meeting of the board of governors of the IAEA with which India must negotiate a safeguards agreement.
The 35-member IAEA board is scheduled to meet in Vienna from November 19 to 21.
Government sources have indicated that it would take six weeks to prepare for the IAEA talks. Even if a safeguards agreement is not actually signed, India and the atomic energy watchdog have to agree to freeze its text. It is this text that India and the US will then take to the Nuclear Suppliers Group — scheduled again to meet in end-November — and seek its waiver.
Prakash Karat and the Left had said consistently that such a measure would be construed as “operationalisation” of the deal and they would have no choice but to pull out. Two more meetings of the UPA-Left panel on the nuclear deal are slated for October 9 and 14.