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India Leader Struggles to Complete Nuclear Deal
By Somini Sengupta
The New York Times

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

NEW DELHI - The Indian government is desperately trying to salvage a landmark nuclear deal with the United States that has emerged not only as a personal test for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, but also as a symbol of the difficulties of enacting policy in India's system of coalition politics.

At issue this week is whether the fragile government led by Mr. Singh's Congress Party will go through with the deal, even if it means being pushed to the brink of what, in a time of discontent over soaring food and fuel prices, it wants to avoid: early elections, before the end of its five-year term in May.

On Monday, Mr. Singh made a public plea to his Communist allies in Parliament to allow the government to take the next steps to complete the nuclear agreement, securing the blessings of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group.

Once that has been done, Mr. Singh promised, he will bring the matter before the Indian Parliament before sending it on to the United States Congress for final approval during its current session.

The agreement, which would give India access to fuel and technology for nuclear power plants, has floundered for several months because of political opposition, most critically from four Communist factions that provide crucial support to Mr. Singh's coalition government.

The leftists are against the deal on the ground that it would fortify strategic relations with the United States, a policy they oppose. They have made it clear in recent days that they will withdraw their support for the coalition if Mr. Singh goes ahead with the deal. That could lead to the government's collapse and early elections this year.

The prime minister, determined to make the nuclear accord a legacy of his administration, has concluded that his private talks with the Communists reached "a dead end," said a government official who spoke with him. Because of the delicacy of the issue, this official, and others in New Delhi and Washington, spoke on condition of anonymity.

The deadlock holds important lessons for the future of the world's most populous democracy, as the country's two main political parties diminish in strength, rely increasingly on smaller parties to form a government, and are in turn left ever more vulnerable to the smaller parties' whims.

To alienate the Communist allies now, said one Congress Party politician, would be to raise a political cloud for the future.

"We must establish we are not a party who cannot manage a coalition," said the politician. "In a future coalition, everyone will be skeptical of us."

To hold onto its majority should the Communists quit the coalition, the Congress Party is now wooing a North Indian regional party with which it fell out recently, Samajwadi.

The White House has said it remains hopeful that the Indian government will untangle its domestic political difficulties in time to get the deal to the United States Congress before the end of President Bush's tenure.

"When the India side is ready to move, we'll see just how far we can take it," a senior United States official said recently from Washington.

Congress Party officials said in recent days that there was still no final decision on whether to defy the leftists and push ahead with the nuclear deal.

Another Indian official described the hand-wringing inside the Congress Party this way: "There are several who still think you should not sacrifice the government for the sake of this deal. Several are feeling the other way."

A final decision is expected by next week, when the prime minister leaves for Tokyo for the Group of 8 meeting of industrialized nations, where he is expected to meet with Mr. Bush.

 

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