| Manmohan Singh in Delhi on Friday. (PTI)
New Delhi, Oct. 12: After two months of keeping the nation on tenterhooks, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh today publicly declared that early elections were not on the cards and the government would like to last its full term till 2009.
Speaking at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit this morning, the two leaders suggested that while talks with the Left parties would continue, the government would not immediately risk survival by pressing ahead with the nuclear deal.
The most significant remark of the day came from the Prime Minister who steadfastly defended the controversial Indo-US civil nuclear agreement but added: “If the deal does not come through, that is not the end of life.”
The Prime Minister, who had put his personal prestige and the government’s survival at stake on the passage of the nuclear deal, admitted that it would be “a disappointment” if it did not come through.
Singh then chose to put on a philosopher’s hat, saying: “But in life, one has to take certain disappointments and move on to the next….”
However, the Left was guarded in its response with leaders saying in private that the “last word” has not been spoken on the subject. Until they receive a formal communication that the “next steps” would not be taken, the deal cannot be considered dead, the leaders said.
Since the last UPA-Left meeting on October 9, a shift in the mood in ruling circles was discernible. The earlier resolve to go ahead with the “next steps” on the deal had been replaced by a sense of caution.
Allies such as Sharad Pawar and Lalu Prasad publicly stated that a breach with the Left and early elections were not worth it — especially since the future of the deal itself was in jeopardy.
Faced with the prospect of losing the deal and losing the government, “political pragmatists” who outnumber the deal backers in the UPA were keen to save the government and put the deal on the backburner.
The announcement of the Gujarat election schedule only strengthened this lobby which felt that a fissure in the UPA coalition would end up helping the BJP.
This point, sources said, was forcefully emphasised by CPM leaders Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury when they met Sonia on Monday.
They pointed out that neither the Left nor the UPA partners were keen on early elections and haste to seal the deal should not fracture the forces of secularism.
The only imponderable, Congress leaders privately said, was the Prime Minister’s reaction to the “go-slow” imperative.
In view of Singh’s open challenge to the Left delivered in his August 11 interview to The Telegraph, there was a fear that he might revolt against any “climbdown”.
That fear was put to rest today when the Prime Minister assumed a philosopher-statesman mantle by sticking to his stated position on the deal without making it an issue of personal prestige.
Repeating the same words he had used in The Telegraph interview, Singh described the nuclear agreement as “an honourable deal that is good for India and good for the world”. Efforts were still on “to reconcile divergent points of view” and “I have not given up hope that reason and common sense will ultimately win the day”.
However, Singh appeared reconciled to the fact that that “ultimate” day was still far off and may not fit into the original timetable set out to complete the “next steps”. That is why he underlined that “we are not a one-issue government” but had taken initiatives on a range of issues.
He said: “Elections are still far away. The government has still one-and-a-half years to complete its term. I hope and expect we will stay the course.”
Sonia, who spoke after Singh had left the venue, seized on those remarks. “No, we are not in favour of early elections. As the Prime Minister has said, the deadline is 2009. We are going to do all that we can to see that we implement our programmes till 2009.”
On her part, Sonia went out of her way to praise Singh. She stressed that he had been her one and only choice for the post of Prime Minister all along and his government had done a very good job.