If we are to go by media speculation, this seems to be the fateful Hamletian moment for the United Progressive Alliance government and the party that leads it. It needs to choose between completing its elected term of five years as a minority regime supported from outside by the Left parties — and ending its life prematurely by pursuing the commitment it made to the Bush administration to operationalise the Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear deal as part of a strategic partnership. One part of the ruling dispensation, claiming to speak for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, seems to have persuaded itself that “’tis nobler in the mind” not to “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” that have effectively hamstrung it. With a draft ‘India-specific’ International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards agreement in hand, it seems prepared to end “the heart-ache” of not being allowed to consummate a special relationship and bring into this world a baby that it claims will enable India to win energy security and take a leading position on the world stage. But another part of the ruling dispensation — most of the Congress party, its leaders, and the other constituents of the UPA — do not seem to see much political sense in venturing prematurely into “the undiscover’d country” that lies beyond the 15th general election.
The speculation about an early election was fuelled by the Rs.60,000 crore farm loan waiver announced in the budget; and parliamentary statements by External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Singh to the effect that the government would continue to seek the broadest possible consensus for operationalising the 123. Once the Left parties picked up the gauntlet, demanding an early meeting of the joint UPA-Left committee on the nuclear deal, announcing they would take “all the necessary steps to stop the government” from taking the next operationalising step (going to the Nuclear Suppliers Group), and making it clear that the future of the government depended on this decision, the ruling party seems to have backed off. Mr. Mukherjee has clarified in recent interviews that early elections were not on, that there was no “fixed timeline” for the deal, that there would be no deal if the Left withdrew support, and that a caretaker government could not go ahead with operationalising it. Now Sonia Gandhi has stated categorically that the Congress is preparing for some State Assembly elections (in Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh) in the next few months and for a 2009 Lok Sabha election. That should end all speculation. Whoever gets to form the next government after the 15th general election, there will be plenty of time after that to re-imagine a civilian nuclear deal on multilateral lines — without locating it within a ‘strategic partnership’ with any one country.