The immediate threat to the Manmohan Singh government over the civil nuclear deal with the United States seems to have disappeared. For a start, it has been able to work out a formula for pacifying the belligerent Left parties by setting up a committee to examine the deal. But it is clearly no more than a typical delaying tactic to defuse the situation and doesn't mean the pact is about to be scrapped.
It is really a step that will enable the Left to claim that it has not been roundly rebuffed.
But perhaps the biggest gain for the government is the more nuanced approach adopted by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to distinguish itself from the communist position. Not surprisingly, this new line emphasizing that the party is not guided by anti-Americanism like the comrades has been articulated by veteran L.K. Advani, leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament. His observation that the BJP was not against a strategic relationship with the US will provide some comfort to the government.
It is not without significance that Advani's initiative came soon after the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) declared it would not be micromanaging the affairs of the BJP, as in the recent past. It may be recalled that that Advani was removed from the party president's post at the behest of the RSS, the ideological mentors of the BJP.
The government, therefore, can rest easy for the moment. However, none of these developments means that the next general election will not be held before the scheduled time of 2009. For one, the committee's findings are unlikely to please all the four Left parties - the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), the Communist Party of India, the Forward Bloc and the Revolutionary Party of India.
The three minor parties have already demonstrated greater belligerence than the CPI-M, presumably because they try to make up for their smallness through strident 'revolutionary' rhetoric.
For another, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance is well aware that the present truce with the comrades is a temporary one and that it will be virtually impossible to sustain it for another two years if only because the deal will have to be 'operationalized' (to use the ugly word coined by the Left) before that. The Congress will look for a suitable time, therefore, to call for the elections. In all likelihood, this will be after the Gujarat polls later this year, especially if the Narendra Modi government is either defeated or suffers a setback.
But even as the main protagonists - the Congress, the BJP and the communists - gear up for the next big battle, several things have already become clear. One is that the government, and especially Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, looks more secure than before because the positive implications of the nuclear deal is slowly percolating through to the general public. What has helped this process is the intensive discussion in the media and the public forums for weeks and months - indeed, over the last two years - over all aspects of the deal.
India's noisy democracy has ensured the deal has been scrutinized more closely than any other international issue in recent years. The Left has played a key role in this respect, but if the comrades thought that the process would help their cause, they were mistaken. While their primary objective was whipping up anti-American sentiments by accusing the Manmohan Singh government of a sell-out, they failed to take into account the fact that such tactics, reminiscent of the Cold War days, no longer appealed to the Indian middle class, especially to the younger generation in the urban areas.
It is the fear of losing the middle class to the Congress, which has persuaded the BJP to clarify its position on ties with America despite the party's continuing misgivings about the deal, though these may be due more to its desire to hold on to the opposition space than to genuine doubts. But the communists can hardly follow suit because of their longstanding, almost visceral, antipathy towards America.
As it is, they have had to beat a retreat on the issue of the pro-private sector, 'neo-liberal' economic policies because Marxist Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya of West Bengal pursues them in the state. If, on top of this, the commissars had to abandon their customary line against US 'neo-colonialism', then they might as well close shop.
The Left has other problems as well. One is that its state units in West Bengal and Kerala are dead against an early election because of internal dissensions. In West Bengal, the government has been battling the opponents of its industrial policies involving the acquisition of agricultural land in favor of the private sector. Since this confrontation has led to bloodshed in Nandigram and Singur, the conditions are too tense for an election.
In Kerala, the feud between Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan and senior party leader Pinarayi Vijayan had reached such a stage that both had to be expelled from the politburo. Clearly, the CPI-M is in no position to face the electorate there.
There is also a third problem. This is the whispered allegation, now growing increasingly louder, that the Left's anti-nuclear deal stand will help China and Pakistan. That these charges cannot be wished away is evident from comments in the People's Daily of Beijing that since the US is providing 'another country' with nuclear technology, "other nuclear suppliers also have their own partners of interest as well as good reasons to copy what the US does".
That China has long had a clandestine nuclear relationship with its 'partner of interest' - "all-weather friend" Pakistan - is no secret. Hence, the reports of a deal between Beijing and Islamabad similar to the one between India and the US haven't exactly bolstered the Left's reputation for patriotism.
Not surprisingly, opinion surveys have shown that the Congress will gain in the next elections while the BJP and the Left will lose ground. It is on the cards that after a decent interval, the Congress will claim that it tried its best to accommodate the Left by setting up a committee to examine its objections but that the Left's intransigence stood in the way.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)