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Left hears break-up bell
- Showdown unlikely today but Sonia’s stand signals countdown to split

New Delhi, June 24: Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s understated but firm support to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on going ahead with the next steps of the Indo-US nuclear deal has left no room for any “compromise” and the final break between the Left and the UPA government could take place in the next couple of weeks, top CPM sources indicated to The Telegraph today.

There will be no “showdown” at tomorrow’s formal meeting of the UPA-Left committee and both sides will continue with the “charade” of negotiations for a little longer. But the Left will not hesitate to withdraw support if the government takes the next step — going to the IAEA board to finalise the India-specific safeguards, sources said.

Congress leaders as well as UPA allies still feel that some kind of a compromise can be worked out to avert a showdown and are hoping for a repeat of the scenario that took place last November. At that time, the Left leaders agreed to allow the government to hold talks with the IAEA secretariat for working out the text of the India-specific safeguards agreement.

An informal agreement was first thrashed out on November 10, 2007, at a meeting attended by Sonia, Manmohan, Pranab Mukherjee, Prakash Karat and A.B. Bardhan.

This was followed by a formal meeting of the UPA-Left committee on November 16, at the end of which a terse statement signalled the Left’s climbdown. The statement had noted that “the government will proceed with the talks (with the IAEA) and the outcome will be presented to the committee for its consideration before it finalises its findings”.

Seven months later, the government — and the Prime Minister in particular — is set on clinching the IAEA draft agreement which it has refused to share with the Left leaders. The new compromise formula under consideration is to persuade the Left to allow the government to finalise the India-specific safeguards but give them veto power on the next steps, which include an India-specific waiver by the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) and the ratification of the 123 Agreement by the US Congress.

The Left is unwilling to accept this formula unless the Prime Minister publicly “abandons” the 123 Agreement — a scenario that is wholly unrealistic.

June 2008, CPM sources insist, is not November 2007 for a number of reasons of which the most important is Sonia’s change of stance. The Prime Minister, they say, was always for the deal even if it meant withdrawal of support by the Left leading to the fall of the UPA government. But Sonia did not want a breach with the Left parties and was completely averse to early polls on the issue of the nuclear deal last year.

That is why both sides arrived at a “political understanding” — the Left’s decision to allow the government to hold talks with the IAEA was meant to be a “face-saver” and “honourable exit route” for the Prime Minister. In other words, the prolonged negotiations (between the Left and the UPA and between the government and the IAEA) would ensure that the deal died a “natural death”.

There is a certain sense of betrayal in Left circles that the government did not follow that script. Rather than seeing it as an exit route, the government seized upon the Left’s climbdown last November to actively pursue the deal, and the negotiators are more than happy with what they have achieved so far at the IAEA.

The Prime Minister, who has always maintained that the deal “is good for India and good for the world”, is now “absolutely adamant” that India must go ahead regardless of domestic political compulsions.

This time, Sonia is backing him for at least two reasons, Left insiders feel. One, she cannot afford to let the Prime Minister — whom she personally nominated and with whom she shares a rare rapport — quit or be humiliated on the world stage.

Second, given the looming economic crisis, an election this winter — when prices usually show a decline — rather than next summer may actually be better for the UPA.

The pro-deal lobby’s argument that “calling the Left’s bluff” would enhance the stature of the Prime Minister and the Congress in the eyes of the urban middle class is also being taken a little more seriously than it was last year.

For the Left, too, breaking with the government at this stage is far easier than it was last year. One key reason for the November 16 compromise, CPM sources said, was that the Bengal unit of the party had been averse to early Lok Sabha polls, regarding them as a “distraction” from the far more crucial panchayat elections this summer. With the panchayat elections out of the way, there is no such pressure on the central leadership from the state unit. Left cadres, in fact, have been urging the leadership to break with the Manmohan Singh government well ahead of the general elections because they are finding it difficult to justify support to the UPA’s “anti-people policies” in a climate of spiralling inflation.

At tomorrow’s meeting, however, Left leaders may agree to “consider” whatever proposals the government offers them.

The CPM will then convene an emergency politburo meeting by the end of this week and the CPI will consult its own secretariat. Both bodies are expected to reiterate that any further movement on the nuclear deal will not be acceptable any more.

If the government manages to get the support of the Samajwadi Party, it may squeak through a no-confidence motion in Parliament but the political breach between the UPA and the Left will be complete, sources said.

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