Did the Congress lose its nerve, like Rahul Dravid in the Oval Test, and beat a hasty retreat on the India-US nuclear deal? And has it now decided to push through the deal again after realizing that backtracking was a costly political mistake? Both explanations seem plausible in the context of the recent twists and turns in the policies of the Grand Old Party of Indian independence.
For instance, just as Indian cricket captain Rahul Dravid decided to pursue a risk-free course by not enforcing the follow-on against England in the Oval Test even after getting a huge first innings lead of 319 runs, the Congress may have initially decided not to take the risk of an early general election by shelving the n-deal.
The risk it apparently sought to avoid was the possibility of the Left bringing down the Manmohan Singh government by voting against it along with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Lok Sabha if the government started implementing the deal by negotiating with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
But within a day of the retreat the Congress seemed to have realized that it has suffered a huge loss of face by backtracking on an international agreement involving the US, the IAEA and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). The climb down was all the more embarrassing because the government and the party had ardently championed the cause of the deal for the last two years.
At the domestic level, the meek surrender to the Left had seemingly alienated a large section of the middle and upper classes of mainly the younger generation who had little patience with the Left's familiar Soviet-era diatribes against US 'imperialism'.
What is more, by its abject withdrawal from a commitment, the government exposed itself to further blackmail by the communists - this time on economic issues, which they have long criticized for being market-oriented. It also seemed likely that the Congress's other allies might now begin to exploit its vulnerability to secure their pounds of flesh on issues close to their hearts, such as amending the constitution on sensitive issues like reservations.
So, in a statement uncharacteristic of a generally reticent person, the prime minister has now blamed the allies for virtually siding with the Left in scuttling the deal although they had earlier endorsed the cabinet's approval of the measure.
This curious turnaround of the allies is a pointer to their blinkered outlook. Since their limited provincial and caste bases are a hindrance to taking a broader national, let alone international, view, they seem to have no firm opinions either for or against the deal. It is also possible that they do not even understand all the implications of a rather esoteric subject. So, they follow whatever suits them for the moment.
The Left, of course, does not belong to this category. Its objections are ideological as the commissars are still fighting the lost battles of the former Soviet Union against America.
Caught between unfocussed and dogmatic partners, Manmohan Singh's discomfiture is understandable. Since he has staked his entire prestige on the deal, an unceremonious retreat will be a severe blow to his prestige, making him incapable of leading the party at the time of the elections.
The prime minister's predicament offers an uncanny similarity with the Dravid episode. The Indian captain, too, played safe by opting for a draw instead of going for a win. As a result, he not only invited criticism for being too defensive but has since experienced such a severe loss of form that he was dropped from the Indian team for the seventh one-day match against Australia in Mumbai.
Earlier, of course, he had resigned as captain by claiming that he was not enjoying the game. Speaking in the context of the resignation, former Pakistan captain Imran Khan said that Dravid's predecessor, Sourav Ganguly, was someone who was not averse to taking risks.
While Manmohan Singh has ruled out resigning, there is apparently a realization in the Congress that the party might have done better by taking the risk of opting for early elections since an ignominious retreat on the deal was bound to have a demoralizing effect on the organization.
So, even as a senior party functionary, Jayanthi Natarajan, praised the party's habit of listening to its allies, a lesser-known member, Shakeel Ahmed, claimed that the deal was not off. And, then, while Minister of State for External Affairs Anand Sharma underlined the importance of India being a part of the world nuclear order, the prime minister told the media that attempts for reaching a consensus on the deal were still on and that he had not lost hope.
The Left, which was cock-a-hoop after the government's climb down, has again begun reminding the Congress that it wouldn't accept the deal. Since some of its members have privately admitted that they expect to lose parliamentary seats in the event of an election, the comrades have evidently decided to court defeat for the sake of dogma.
Now, the Congress has to make up its mind whether it will play safe like Dravid and hang on to power for the remaining two years of its time. However, at the end of this 'lame duck' period, it might be seen as a party that is too cowed down by its 'friends' to wield power effectively.
The best course for it is to go for an election. As the saying goes: no risk, no gain.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)