Jul 5, 2008

Columnists - Barkha Dutt

Their time starts now
By the time this makes it to print, Amar Singh and Sonia Gandhi wo-uld have excha-nged awkward but polite pleasantries, perhaps over a cup of freshly brewed coffee. And the demons of the dinner that ended up being a political variation of the ‘Last Supper’ — a dinner where Amar Singh proclaimed that the Congress treated him worse than a “dog or a beggar”— would have finally been laid to rest.
The political drama of the past week was written to be performed as the theatre of the absurd. It had all the elements — manufactured conflict (when the Samajwadi Party pretends to be offended by the Congress); melodramatic proclamations of happily-ever-after love (when the Third Front says it is united); war cries raised by generals nervous about going to battle (when the Left keeps setting ominous deadlines which shift to the next week and the next week and the next); courtiers and viziers who claim to be loyal to the king but plot furiously to weaken him (talk to Congressmen off-camera and discover what they really say about the Prime Minister’s insistence on the nuclear deal).
Perhaps the most orchestrated moment in this obviously preordained script was when former President, Abdul Kalam, became the scientific ‘expert’ that Mulayam Singh Yadav and Amar Singh turned to for counsel. A senior Congress politician tipped us off on the outcome of the meeting before it had begun, with a complacent little chuckle. And while the Congress and the SP may splutter self-righteously against Mayawati for ‘communalising’ the discourse and making it about the Indian Muslim, it’s pretty obvious that they are just as worried themselves.
Yes, of course, Kalam is one of India’s foremost missile scientists and is easily the country’s best-loved President. But, surely we all know that there’s another reason that he was the perfect candidate. He’s Muslim and when he says the deal is in “national interest”, the two political parties hope it’s a powerful antidote to the reactionary clerics who argue otherwise. It’s the same political nervousness that has propelled the Congress into sudden public clarifications on the Iran pipeline and India’s refusal to send troops to Iraq. These are calculated illustrations, in the obvious hope that the Muslim voter (imagined erroneously as a monolith) is paying close attention. So, what’s slated for the next episode in this crazy soap opera? Well, to start with — ignore the bluster and the dramatic ultimatums — this story isn’t drawing to a close anytime soon. Here’s a glimpse of which way the script could unfold:
The Marxists (stunned and isolated by the SP’s sudden betrayal) may have set July 7 as a de facto deadline for the government to come out and clarify when exactly it plans to approach the International atomic energy Agency (IAEA). But that doesn’t mean the UPA will oblige them with a clear answer.
Instead, Congress strategists have another complicated card up their sleeves. Look out for a Parliament session convened within the next four-five weeks. Watch the PM win a confidence vote with the support of new friends from UP who will argue that their backing is more about keeping the BJP out and less about the nuclear deal. Be sure that the Congress will dither in public on spelling out any dates on when it plans to go to Vienna. Privately, party masterminds calculate that approaching the IAEA in August buys them enough time politically to iron out domestic creases. Then the attention turns to the Left. Will it bite the bait and pull out before all this is unveiled formally? Or will it end up being unwittingly (or perhaps knowingly) complicit in this complex survival plan and hang around and wait to be pushed into an even bigger and much lonelier corner?
There’s just one tiny, but crucial, piece missing in the puzzle — and that is the Americans. So far, a patient American administration has said it will wait till mid-January for the 123 agreement to reach its doorstep. But now, there are signs of exasperation and impatience. A visiting US Congressman has already warned that the ship may be “leaving the port in September.” If Washington decides to call off the lame-duck session of its Congress in December (that’s the Congress that would have convened after the elections), there’s virtually no chance of the deal becoming a reality during President Bush’s tenure. Despite proclaimed bipartisan support for the deal, it may be back to the drawing board with the new Democrats in place. Also, it is worth remembering that getting the safeguards agreement in place by September leaves very little time to get the support of the 45 countries in the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG). If China, or even Ireland, decides that they need more time to debate before signing off on the deal internally, India could well be in serious trouble. No wonder then that diplomats are already spin-doctoring stories on how the deal may not go through this year, but that doesn’t mean it is quite dead and buried.
In the meantime, a jittery Congress hasn’t forgotten the infamous day when Sonia Gandhi went to Rashtrapati Bhawan counting on the support of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Amar Singh, only to be abandoned at the very last moment. Her public claim of ‘272’ MPs would cause her endless embarrassment in the days and years to come. So, as the party nervously learns to be friends again with a hard-talking SP, enough leaders are privately lamenting that they have just switched walking sticks. First, the crutch was the Left, now it will be the SP. An alliance with the SP may have been an inevitable need for both parties in the next Lok Sabha elections, especially with Mayawati deserting the UPA ship. But in these circumstances of desperate need, the Congress has ended up giving the SP an easy upper hand.
As this drama draws to a messy, unstable denouement, there is one party smiling smugly in the corner: the BJP — watching and waiting for its moment in 2009.

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