The stalemate over the India-US nuclear deal is the result of a standoff between an ideologically driven Left and an ideologically confused Congress party, whose uncertainties have been boosted by its minority status. The Congress' dependence on the Left's support in parliament has prevented it from moving ahead on the deal although Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has set his heart on it.
In addition to these two factors, further complications have been created by the presence on the Congress' side of fickle non-Communist allies whose limited regional outlook and misgivings about electoral prospects have made them wary of supporting the deal to the extent of risking a general election for it.
These are not the only problems for the Congress. A sudden inflationary spiral and defeats in a number of state elections have tied the Congress party's hands. There is also the party's 'socialistic' and 'non-aligned' past which still has its votaries in the organisation who are half in agreement with the Left's anti-American views. Not surprisingly, one of them, Panchayati Raj Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar has raised the question of the utility of nuclear power (as the Left has done) by calling for a new energy paradigm.
While these are the constraints on the side of the parties in power, the attitude of the opposition, namely, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as well as those not with the BJP like the Samajwadi Party are also not helpful. The BJP's attitude, for instance, has been called cussed since it is blocking the deal even though it does not share the Left's obsessive anti-Americanism.
Instead, its fear is that a clinching of the pathbreaking agreement with the US will give a huge boost to the Congress' electoral prospects because virtually the entire middle and upper classes are seemingly in its favour. If, as a result, the Congress and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by it return to power, then the chances of L.K. Advani, the BJP's octogenarian prime ministerial candidate, fulfilling his life's ambition will be dashed, perhaps forever.
Advani wants, therefore, to rewrite the deal to incorporate the right to 'test' nuclear weapons although his own party had imposed a unilateral moratorium after Pokhran II in 1998. Curiously, the pro-Hindu Shiv Sena has come out in favour of the deal, suggesting a breach in the saffron ranks.
There may also be a rupture among the Left's supporters if the Samajwadi Party decides to back the deal, signifying a shift towards the Congress. A realignment on these lines has been on the cards ever since the Congress and the Samajwadi Party showed signs of teaming up in Uttar Pradesh against their common adversary, Chief Minister Mayawati.
The communists are uneasy about such a change of loyalties because it will mean the end of their much-touted anti-BJP, anti-Congress Third Front. One of its earlier constituents, the AIADMK, left it soon after its formation. Now, if the Samajwadi Party also walks out, then the comrades will be unable to use their customary pressure tactics on the Congress by threatening to boost the Front. To keep the Samajwadi Party on their side, therefore, some of the comrades have been playing the communal card by saying it will lose its Muslim vote bank by supporting the deal.
What these permutations and combinations underline is the myopia and pettiness of the Indian political scene. They also show how nearly all the parties are so preoccupied with their electoral calculations that they do not always keep the overall national interest in mind.
However, the Left's mindset is different. Although the commissars privately admit they will suffer in electoral terms if they bring about an early general election by toppling the Manmohan Singh government over the deal, they are unwilling to back out for dogmatic reasons.
To them, the deal is not about nuclear power alone but a step towards closer India-America strategic ties, which, they believe, are intended to check the growing influence of China, which is their ideological ally. Besides, they do not want India to move permanently into the orbit of 'neo-imperialist' America, the heartland of capitalism. To support the deal, therefore, is for them tantamount to committing ideological hara-kiri.
Yet, the Left, mainly the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), is aware that its obduracy may prove costly in terms of parliamentary seats because of popular disaffection in its own backyard of West Bengal and factional squabbles in Kerala. The recent reverses suffered by the communists in the West Bengal panchayat elections had underlined an erosion of their influence. The state is also facing a separatist movement by the Gorkhas in Darjeeling.
To make matters worse, one of the Left Front's constituents, the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), is trying to form a rival front with the Maoists and another Leftist party, the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI).
The CPI-M's anti-Americanism, however, is not without its contradictions, for in West Bengal, the state government has opted wholeheartedly for capitalist policies to revive its moribund economy. This ideological heresy is one of the reasons for the RSP's manoeuvres.
On its part, the Congress is not too sure whether the deal will enable it to cross the electoral hurdle because its importance and implications may not be fully understood by the rural masses. Hence, it has been desperately trying to buy time. Besides, Manmohan Singh has few staunch supporters in the party while Congress president Sonia Gandhi does not seem to want to permanently alienate the Left. The latter is also evidently using her hesitancy to press its case.
But it is the timetable of the US presidential election that is forcing Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi to take a stand because they are not sure how supportive of the deal a White House under the Democrats will be. Hence, the chances of the government okaying the deal are high.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at email@example.com)