The nuclear deal controversy seems to have brought out some of the worst aspects of Indian politics. As much is evident from the cynical manner in which several parties are trying to communalize the issue by suggesting, without a shred of factual evidence, that Muslims will be antagonized by the pact with the US.
Blatant cynicism has, of course, marked the entire discourse about the path-breaking initiative, which will end the nuclear apartheid from which India has been suffering since Pokhran I in 1974. While the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been opposing it even while saying that it was not against strategic ties with the US, the Communists, who are the Manmohan Singh government's allies, have been threatening to withdraw support not so much because of specific objections to the agreement as because of their fear that it would take India into the "neo-imperialist" American camp.
The attempt to exploit Muslim sentiments, however, is perhaps the most unprincipled of all these political tricks to scuttle the deal. That the supposedly "secular" communists are not averse to playing this communal card was evident from the comments of M.K. Pandhe, a member of the politburo of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), about Muslims being against the deal.
Although the CPI-M general secretary, Prakash Karat, distanced himself from the observation, it had nevertheless shown the kind of insidious, behind-the-scene propaganda that the Left might carry on to sabotage the measure.
In contrast, the fact that Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati will be more forthcoming was evident from her unambiguous remarks about Muslim alienation if India signs the deal.
But what all these worthies seem to have missed in their eagerness to boost the position of their parties by pretending to be friends of the minorities is that there is little overt sign of Muslims as a whole being against the step. It doesn't stand to reason that the entire community of 140 million thinks on the same lines.
As election results have shown more than once, their response to the various issues is as varied as that of other Indians, depending on region, social and educational status and a general understanding of the events of the day. Not surprisingly, voices for and against the deal have been heard from groups of Muslims.
But the most prominent statement of support has come from none other than the former president, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who was also one of the scientists behind Pokhran II in 1998. The supposedly negative Muslim response to the deal is, therefore, a red herring that is intended solely to create confusion.
All that can be said about the Muslims is that they usually tend to vote tactically to keep their bete noire, the BJP, at bay. As such, Mayawati may have overplayed her hand by talking of the adverse Muslim response, as the current conjectures about her proximity to the BJP will alienate them more than the deal.
Her comments have also shown that notwithstanding her electoral success in India's largest state via a remarkable Dalit-Brahmin "rainbow" coalition, she remains essentially a regional politician with limited understanding of the larger national issues. As such, her undisguised ambition to be prime minister one day will seem more of a pipe dream than before.
However, her main opponent in Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party, has been no less opportunistic in its attitude towards the deal. While the party had been ambivalent about it earlier because of its closeness to the CPI-M as well as the fear of losing its Muslim "vote bank", it has since changed its mind because of the expected alliance between Mayawati and the BJP.
Since this combination will be quite a formidable one in Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party has evidently deemed it wise to move closer to the Congress, and the only way it can do so is by offering to support the Manmohan Singh government during a trial of strength in parliament.
What this change of attitude shows is that the parties are not concerned so much about the merits or demerits of the deal as about how to boost their own position. It doesn't seem to matter to them that the national interest may be harmed if they block the deal. All that they care about is their partisan causes.
Thus, we have the BJP opposing the deal because its acceptance will be a feather in the Manmohan Singh government's cap, the Communists opposing it because of their dogmatic anti-Americanism of the Cold War days, and regional parties like the DMK and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) lukewarm about it because of their uncertain election prospects in Tamil Nadu and Bihar.
The Congress too has been uneasy about the Muslim reaction, which is why one of its important members, Salman Khurshid, questioned the government's "now or never" attitude. But these doubting Thomases have all been marginalized by the prime minister's insistence on signing the deal before it is too late.
The clincher in a way has been Kalam's statement, which has given a valid excuse to outfits like the Samajwadi Party to back the government on a supposedly pro-American measure.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)