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Indian government survives no-confidence vote

Its controversial deal to import US nuclear technology and fuel can now go ahead.

By Mian RidgeCorrespondent / July 23, 2008

New Delhi

Amid uproarious scenes, India's government avoided collapse Tuesday when it won a perilously close vote of confidence in parliament. The win means India can now focus on pushing through a much-vaunted, long-delayed nuclear deal with the United States.

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Had the government lost the vote, the world's biggest democracy would have faced early elections and the Indo-US nuclear deal would almost certainly have been canned.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Congress party-led coalition, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) won 275 votes in its favor and 256 against in the confidence motion, the parliamentary speaker Somnath Chatterjee announced late Tuesday. The vote followed a two-day parliamentary debate.

"Parliament has spoken in an unambiguous manner," Mr. Singh told journalists outside parliament. "This augurs well for the country's development and for India's efforts to find its rightful place in the comity of nations. It is a convincing victory."

The vote of confidence, India's first in a decade, was prompted when the government's communist allies withdrew their support over the civilian nuclear deal, arguing that the pact made India a pawn of Washington. Their withdrawal left the government without a clear majority.

So close seemed the vote that four jailed members of parliament (MPs) – serving time for kidnap, murder, and arson – were temporarily released under constitutional provisions guaranteeing their right to vote. Several hospitalized MPs were also brought in, including one wheeled into parliament on a gurney.

A historic deal for energy

The nuclear deal would almost certainly have been scrapped had the UPA lost in an early election to the most likely victor, the opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. The BJP – which supported such a deal until it became politically expedient to do otherwise – has said the pact would limit India's ability to test nuclear weapons and that it would renegotiate the agreement.

That historic deal will allow India, which has nuclear weapons but has never signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, to import nuclear technology and fuel provided it separates its civil and military programs and allows UN inspections.

But political wranglings have meant that the passage of the deal, originally agreed by Singh and US President George Bush in 2005, has fallen far behind schedule.

In the past two days, members of the government have mounted a passionate defense of the agreement, arguing that India's billion-plus population urgently needs new sources of energy.

Finance minister Palaniappan Chidambaram urged MPs to back the government so India could "emulate" China's "superpower" status and grow its economy.