For the first time since Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made his abortive take-it-or-leave-it offer to the Left on the nuclear deal, he displayed the same assertiveness in parliament last Wednesday.
In the intervening period, he had given the impression of having lost the hope of realizing his ambition of clinching the deal, which he evidently regards as one that will be the crowning glory of his career.
His despondency in the face of an obdurate Left determined to block the measure to stall America's "imperialist" machinations was seen in his publicly expressed philosophical acceptance of disappointments in life.
But, suddenly, the mood has changed. What has happened in the meantime? It seems that the ruling Congress has evolved a game plan under which it will try to push through the deal once the hugely populist budget is passed and, then, if the Left withdraws support, it will call for elections.
Although the communists are caught in a cleft stick in that they can neither afford to oppose a budget, which has given indebted farmers an unprecedented Rs.600 billion write-off, nor approve of the deal, the fall of the government seems unavoidable. Their last hope is to deliver an ultimatum at their March 15 meeting with the government and then wait for the government's response.
But, since the Congress is apparently following its own timetable, it is also hoping to expose the contradictions in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and persuade a section of the party to support the deal in order to nullify the leftist threat.
As is known, the BJP has been divided on its stand on the deal right from the start. Although a section in the party favors it, its leaders were not bold enough to stop the subject from being hijacked by two former ministers, Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie.
Only once did Leader of Opposition L.K. Advani make a feeble attempt to change the line, but he was quickly overruled by the Sinha-Shourie duo. Eager to get the party's approval for being its prime ministerial candidate, Advani backed down, not wanting the little matter of national interest to upset his personal agenda.
Of late, however, there have been signs of a rethinking in the BJP. It is possible that the displeasure made known to the party by its overseas supporters, mainly in the US, has induced second thoughts. Hence, perhaps, the unambiguous support extended to the deal by former national security adviser Brajesh Mishra, who is known to be close to Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Yet, only a few weeks ago, Mishra was not so explicit.
Like the Left, however, the BJP is also caught in a dilemma. If it supports the deal, it will boost the Congress' prestige, thereby dashing the BJP's hope of returning to power and Advani's desire to become prime minister. And, if the BJP opposes the measure and sides with the Left to bring down the government, the party's middle and upper class constituency is likely to go over wholesale to the Congress.
Arguably, therefore, the Congress is in a fairly comfortable situation. Since the scheduled time of the next general election is not too far away, bringing the polls nearer by a few months will not bother its allies, especially if it enhances the ruling alliance's chances of winning.
Given these advantages, the prime minister clearly tried to sow the seeds of confusion in the BJP's ranks by openly appealing to Vajpayee to back the deal by rising above party politics and also honoring him with the title of Bhishma Pitamah, a legendary father figure in the Hindu epic Mahabharata. Manmohan Singh also took the opportunity to praise the former prime minister for his courageous initiative to advance the peace process with Pakistan.
The prime minister did not miss out in quoting former US deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott, who had said that the Vajpayee government would have been happy to endorse the deal even if it gave half of what Washington is offering India at present.
Since the prime minister has rarely been as combative in scoring political points, the impact of his speech will not be inconsiderable while the BJP cannot but feel uneasy since it is being shown up not only as blindly contrarian but also disunited.
However, the speech was important not only for what it said on the nuclear deal and in countering the BJP's customary allegations of the government's alleged softness towards terrorism because of its pro-Muslim bias. It was also significant for showing that Manmohan Singh remains the top contender for the prime minister's post in the post-election scenario. Any suggestion therefore of a change of guard, with Rahul Gandhi's name being mentioned, can be ruled out.
Much depends, however, on how skillfully the government manages the period between now and the end of the budget session. If the Left takes the suicidal course of withdrawing support even earlier, then the government will be in a quandary because, as External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee has pointed out, even the US wouldn't want a minority government to sign so important an agreement.
On the other hand, if 'Bhishma Pitamah' listens to the voice of conscience, as the prime minister has urged him to do, and persuades the BJP to support the deal, then all will be well.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)