India: Nuclear pact causes deep rift

India's Prime Minister is digging in this week to face political challenges over a high-stakes nuclear deal with the US that could destroy his fragile government.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is steadfastly refusing to renege on a historic nuclear deal with the United States, even though the row threatens to bring down his government.

This weekend, communist allies to India's United Progressive Alliance (UPA), the coalition headed by Mr. Singh's Congress party, made a thinly veiled threat that they would withdraw from the government if it did not cease negotiations with the US over a nuclear-energy pact.

The pact, agreed to this month after two years of discussions, has attracted international criticism because it allows India to buy civil nuclear technology from the US, despite the fact that India has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and has tested nuclear weapons. In return, India would open its civil nuclear reactors to inspectors.

The deal is regarded as the most important act between the world's two biggest democracies since India's independence 60 years ago, laying the foundation for a new strategic alliance between them – and a major foreign-policy triumph for Singh.

But critics in India argue it would give the US too much influence over their country's foreign policy and threaten India's weapons program. Even if the dispute does not result in early elections, analysts say, it has exposed a serious gulf between the government and its communist allies, raising doubts about whether Singh will succeed in establishing closer ties with the US – or manage to pass a number of urgently needed economic reforms.

Singh, however, reiterated on Monday that he was committed to developing nuclear energy. With both sides refusing to back down, the impasse constitutes the most serious crisis of the government's three years in power.

"I would say this is the beginning of a big comedown for the government," says Mahesh Rangarajan, an independent political analyst. "Even if the collapse doesn't happen immediately, I would bet on early elections before they are scheduled in 2009."

Singh expected to hang tough

Though not part of the ruling coalition, India's four communist parties – united around the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – have 60 members of parliament in the 545-member lower house. If they withdraw support, Singh's government will either collapse or be reduced to a feeble minority.

Hamstrung by his leftist allies since he came to power in 2004, Singh, who, as finance minister in the 1990s was the architect of India's economist reforms, has failed to pass any significant reforms as prime minister.

On this occasion, however, the famously gentle Singh is expected to hang tough for what may turn out to be his legacy.

For his government, the nuclear-energy deal with the US is simply too important to go back on. Not only does it constitute a major stride forward in Indo-US relations, it also addresses the critical need to find new sources of the energy upon which India's economic growth depends.

Oil and gas imports currently fuel two-thirds of India's energy supply, placing – in the words of Singh – an "unbearable burden" on Asia's fourth-largest economy.

The communists do not buy this argument. Their objection is ideological, born of a fear that the deal will allow the US to dominate India.

"They don't even want India to have a strategic relationship with the US," says Mr. Rangarajan.

In particular – and perhaps with an eye on India's sizable Muslim vote – the communists say they are concerned that the US may come to control India's relationship with countries such as Iraq and Iran.

A marriage of political convenience

Meanwhile, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is normally the communists' bitter rival, is using concerns about India's nuclear security to unite with the left against Singh's government. This is despite the fact that the BJP supported an alliance with the US before it lost power in 2004.

The BJP argues that the deal will compromise India's nuclear-weapons program. Though the Indian government has said it has not given up the right to conduct nuclear tests and the new deal leaves some studied ambiguity on this question, under US law, the deal could be annulled if India does so. In the event of a test, the US will also be able to demand that India return all nuclear technology and fuel.

The irony is that American critics of the deal see it as excessively soft on India, potentially allowing it to continue building its nuclear-weapons program while refusing to sign the NPT.

"India has always stood against the NPT, and now the US is changing the NPT architecture solely and exclusively for the benefit of India – if that's not a gain for India, what is?" asks B.G. Verghese, a political analyst at New Delhi's Centre for Policy Research.

Mr. Verghese says that for the government to either delay or withdraw from the deal would constitute a major international embarrassment.

"If India backs down, who is ever going to take it seriously again?" he says. "Asking the prime minister to delay on this is like asking him to commit suicide so that he can talk afterwards."

Analysts believe that one way out of the standoff may be for the government and its communist allies to set up a panel of experts to scrutinize the deal in the hope that it would resolve their differences.

Neither side, after all, wants this row to end in elections. For the communists, the 2004 election in which Singh came to power gave them their best performance ever. They do not want a weakened Congress party to lose votes to the BJP. And neither side wants to send India to the polls on an issue that, as Rangarajan says, "is not an issue for most Indians."

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The pact: What critics say

The India-US nuclear deal aims to end American sanctions on nuclear trade with India and give it access to nuclear fuel and equipment.

•Many in the international community say the pact would subvert existing nonproliferation treaties that don't recognize India as a member of the nuclear club.

•Right-wing Indian critics say the deal will hurt India's nuclear security by limiting nuclear trade and prohibiting further weapons testing.

•India's communists are critical of India's friendship with Washington. They say the deal will give the US influence over Indian foreign policy, particularly toward the Middle East.

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