Postpone 123 deal by 12 months

Dear Dr Manmohan Singh,

Your reputation as a good man is being overtaken by your reputation for lack of spine. You received much applause in the media when you appeared to stand firm in the face of Marxist threats to bring down the government if it proceeded with the nuclear deal with the US. Hence, your subsequent about-face has dismayed your supporters, and vindicated the cynicism of your opponents, who always expected you to crack under pressure.

The Marxists are seen to have won through sheer courage of conviction, something you and Sonia Gandhi did not display. Yet, you can have the last laugh after all. The media sees your about-face as surrender. In fact, it can be a strategic pause before striking back.

The next step in the nuclear deal is to negotiate safeguards with the International Atomic Energy Authority. That will pave the way for the US to persuade the Nuclear Suppliers Group to resume nuclear supplies to India. Then the so-called 123 bilateral deal with the US will be voted in the US Congress.

You have shied away from the safeguards deal with the IAEA, since if you sign it, the CPM will topple your government. An opinion poll organised by Yogendra Yadav, India’s most respected pollster, suggests that you may do very well in an early snap election. But your coalition allies are certain to do badly, and so they have opposed an early election. In 2004, the DMK swept the polls in Tamil Nadu, Laloo Yadav did the same in Bihar, and Sharad Pawar did well in Maharashtra. In an early election, all three could lose half or more of the seats they currently hold.

These parties have no strong views on the nuclear deal. But they have very firm views on staying in power, with all its patronage networks and kickbacks, for a full five-year term. The DMK says the nuclear deal is not important but the continuation of the government is. As an exercise in self-preservation, the argument has much logic.

You have given in to these allies. Some will call this reapolitik. Others will call it weak-kneed submission. Either way it leaves you with egg on your face.

The original schedule called for the IAEA safeguards agreement to be signed by October, followed by NSG approval in November, and then a vote in the US Congress in early 2008. Any delay in this schedule could be fatal, since after March 2008 US politicians will be fully occupied with their next Presidential election campaign. The next president, to be elected in November 2008, will almost certainly be a Democrat, lacking the desire of George Bush to stake his or her political capital on a nuclear deal opposed by many influential lobbies within the Democratic Party. This explains the dismay at your decision to put the nuclear deal on ice.

Voters like leaders who actually lead, so your vacillation and surrender will work against you if you are seen sacrificing everything for survival till May 2009. Anti-incumbency will also be much stronger then. Surrender on the nuclear deal may ensure you to last another 18 months, but will severely jeopardise your chances of re-election.

Yet, you can turn the tables through a simple strategy. Keep stonewalling for a year in the joint committee you have set up with the Left Front. Then declare in October 2008 that the CPM is being obtuse, and sign the IAEA safeguards. This can be followed by NSG clearance in November 2008.

The Marxists will doubtless want to vote you out. Instead of giving them that pleasure, ask the President for a fresh poll yourself. By the time the Election Commission revises the voters’ rolls, it will be May 2009, time for the next election anyway.

So, you would not have lost any time in office. That will take care of the objections of your allies such as the DMK. They will stick with you in the next election.

Meanwhile, you will suddenly gain a reputation for both craftiness and decisiveness. Today, you appear to lack both. But you can prove otherwise. That will surely enhance your re-election prospects.

The Left Front will, of course, be livid. So what? The Marxists do not want to go to the 2009 polls as your partners, but as your strong opponents in Kerala and West Bengal. So, you are going to part company anyway.

There remains the risk that the next US president (and US Congress) will not want to go through with the deal. I suspect this risk is greatly exaggerated. The Hyde Act passed both houses of Congress (and their subsequent joint session) with very large majorities. Americans of all stripes see India as a potential strategic partner. The overwhelming odds are that they will vote for the deal.

In sum, today’s political situation, which looks so humiliating and sad, has much potential for a bounce-back. Let your critics sneer for the time being. Let the Marxists rejoice. You can still have the last laugh.

What do you think?