Indian government survives no-confidence vote

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

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.

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.

Ugly scenes in parliament

The confidence vote, originally scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday, was successively delayed by angry rows in parliament. Minutes before the vote was due to take place, parliament was adjourned after members of the BJP waved around wads of cash purportedly worth 30 million rupees ($715,000), claiming they were offered it by the government in return for their support.

State television's live coverage of parliament was suspended and images of Mother Teresa of Calcutta were broadcast instead.

Even the most seasoned political pundits were shocked by such a display on the floor of India's lower house.

"I was expecting mudslinging, but this exceeded all previous known limits. Showing bags of money like that in parliament was unprecedented," says Yogendra Yadav, a political analyst at the Centre for Developing Studies in Delhi.

He adds that because "in fact there is very little that separates the Congress and the BJP in terms of their fundamental foreign policy orientations – on nuclear energy, nuclear weapons, the alliance with the US – that's why the marketing has to be so aggressive."

In recent days, a number of MPs have claimed they were offered multimillion-dollar bribes to vote.

After the bags of money were displayed, the BJP called for Singh's immediate resignation.

But speaker Somnath Chatterjee said the confidence vote would go ahead.

Shortly afterward, Singh read out a brief speech that was barely audible above the clamor.

Earlier, the heir-apparent of the Congress party, Rahul Gandhi, was heckled so relentlessly he abandoned his speech ten minutes into it.

Pressing ahead

India is now expected to seek approval for the nuclear deal from the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Suppliers' Group, before the US Congress can ratify it.

Analysts say they are also expecting Singh to press ahead with economic reforms, including an easing of foreign investment rules.

As finance minister in the 1990s, Singh was the architect of the sweeping reforms that heralded India's economic liberalization. But as prime minister since 2004, he has been hamstrung by his erstwhile communist allies.

His government still faces general elections soon however; now that early elections have been averted, India will go to the polls by May 2009.

But no one expects the nuclear deal to get much of a mention then.

"The nuclear deal will have nothing to do with the election," says Yadav. "Foreign policy just doesn't excite Indian voters at all."

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