|The Opposition party is bereft of an effective parliamentary strategy on the nuclear deal, consumed as it is by political confusion.|
Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha L.K. Advani with UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi after offering tributes to former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on his 63rd birth anniversary, at the Central Hall of the Parliament in New Delhi on August 20.
A STORY doing the rounds in Delhi’s political circles about an interaction between Bharatiya Janata Party leader Lal Krishna Advani and Congress president Sonia Gandhi in the corridors of the Parliament House during the monsoon session more or less sums up the principal Opposition party’s political plight in the context of the India-United States nuclear energy agreement. The interaction apparently took place even as both Houses of Parliament were witnessing tremendous commotion over the deal. Referring to the developments in Parliament, Sonia Gandhi is reported to have asked Advani whether he had developed a sore throat on account of all the anti-government shouting. Advani is said to have replied that he had no direct role in the agitation in Parliament and that he was sitting quietly through most of it. Any close observer of the BJP during the monsoon session could have seen that a sizable number of party leaders and Members of Parliament had taken their cue from the former Deputy Prime Minister and gone into “silent mode”, whenever the nuclear deal came up during the proceedings of the Lok Sabha or the Rajya Sabha.
Put simply, the principal Opposition party’s reactions to the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal presented a quaint political mixture marked by alternating episodes of action and inaction. Sections of the party, essentially driven by former Union Ministers Arun Shourie and Yashwant Sinha, advocated strong initiatives against the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government and seemed to push aggressively in that direction, while most others soft-pedalled the issue with an equally powerful nonchalance. The party was talking about forcing a vote against the government on the issue one day and backtracking even from the idea of moving a no-confidence motion less than 24 hours later. The picture that emerged, at the end of all this, was that of a party bereft of an effective parliamentary strategy, consumed by political confusion and dilemma.
One of the most striking manifestations of this dilemma was witnessed on August 20, the day on which the Left parties – the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M), the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and the Forward Bloc – asked the UPA government to stop further advancement of the deal by putting on hold the talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The BJP leadership, in all its interactions with the public and the media, refused to go into the merits of the issue. The leadership, including Advani and BJP president Rajnath Singh, had taken part in a farmers’ agitation that day but the focus of Advani’s speech to the rallyists was not the nuclear deal itself but the Left parties. He accused the Left of indulging in “shadow-boxing”. He hinted that the stance of the Left parties could lead to mid-term polls to the Lok Sabha, but added that the BJP was not keen to see the UPA government fall at this stage. Party spokesperson Arun Jaitley, in the BJP’s regular media briefing, also took the evasive route and bypassed issues relating to the nuclear deal completely. Instead, he chose to speak on Ottavio Quattrochi, accusing the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) of helping the Bofors accused evade justice.
The reasons for the adoption of such evasive manoeuvres are not hard to find. Discussions in both BJP as well as Congress circles are rife with pointers towards this. A senior Minister in the Central government told Frontline that a significant section of the BJP leadership realised that it had no moral authority to criticise or campaign against the nuclear deal for the simple reason that the party was in the loop vis-a-vis every step that was taken in the negoti ations with the U.S. “In fact,” the Minister pointed out, “the government agencies and representatives had shared information with this section of the BJP even as the 123 Agreement was being finalised.” And some of these leaders had even lauded the Indian negotiating team involved in the talks with the U.S. for having done a commendable job. According to the Minister, these sections still harbour the same opinion, though the BJP’s official position is one of opposing the agreement.
The larger political and ideological context of the Indo-U.S. agreement is one that reinforces the possibility of such give-and-take between the BJP and the Congress. It was under the BJP regime led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee that the concept of nuclear cooperation and partnership with the U.S. was first discussed and advanced.
January 29, 1999: U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott with External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh in New Delhi.
These moves were in the background of the not-so-public talks between Jaswant Singh, then Foreign-cum-Defence Minister in the Vajpayee government, and Strobe Talbott, Deputy Secretary of State in the then U.S. administration led by President Bill Clinton. The secret talks that reportedly went into as many as 16 rounds were indeed focussed on the idea of developing a “strategic partnership” between India and the U.S.
Left leaders have pointed out that the real agenda of the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal is about developing this very strategic partnership to strengthen military-diplomatic initiatives of the U.S. against developing countries such as Iraq and Iran. The fact that the Vajpayee regime had contemplated signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is also perceived to be in keeping with the framework of the “strategic partnership” and the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal.
Leaders of the BJP such as Yashwant Sinha have questioned these analyses by arguing that the concept of cooperation with the U.S. visualised and advanced during the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regimes led by Vajpayee was fundamentally different from what is being advanced by Manmohan Singh and the UPA. Yashwant Sinha’s contention is that the NDA and its Ministers never compromised on the strategic autonomy of the country. This assessment, however, is vociferously questioned by the Left parties. The Left parties’ perspective has takers among the NDA’s constituents too, such as the Sharad Yadav-Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United). More importantly, vast segments in the Congress and the BJP aver that the foreign policy thrusts during Jaswant Singh’s period were very much similar to the line adopted by Manmohan Singh.
Given this background, the BJP leadership’s basic intent in political terms vis-a-vis the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal was not to initiate a major anti-government move but to use it as an occasion to “expose the Left’s s hadow boxing against the UPA”. The near-unanimous view in the BJP leadership, when news of the nuclear agreement came, was that the Left parties would toe the government line after “making some noises” against it. A number of parties belonging to the third grouping, the United National Progressive Alliance, also shared this view. Armed with this assessment, they asked the Left to “prove its sincerity and withdraw support to the government”. The move to force a vote on the issue was initiated with the objective of exposing the Left. However, the reaction of the Left and the strategy of sustained opposition to the deal advanced by it belied the “expose the Left” game plan. This unforeseen reaction from the Left has further accentuated the confusion and dilemma within the BJP.
Even as the sustained opposition of the Left parties and the demands made by them on the government raise visions of a collapse of the UPA government, the BJP leadership seems to be developing yet another area of agreement with the latter – the fervent wishes and statements against an “unwanted” round of midterm elections.