By Rama Lakshmi and Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
NEW DELHI, July 22 -- The Indian government survived a crucial vote of confidence Tuesday, clearing the way for the contentious nuclear energy deal with the United States, after a debate peppered with dramatic allegations of backroom lobbying and bribery.
The vote concluded a bitter, nine-month battle in support of the deal by the now-beleaguered coalition government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The agreement, which would give India access to the world market for nuclear fuel and technology, must be approved by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which governs the trade of nuclear materials. The U.S. Congress would then vote on the accord.
"This vote gives a clear message to the world that India's head and heart are sound and India is prepared to take its rightful place in the comity of nations," said a beaming Singh, whose supporters set off firecrackers and beat celebratory drums in the streets of New Delhi. "I have always said the deal was important, and now we know it."
But the victory was not without cost for Singh. On a day of intense political drama in Parliament, he faced a chorus of calls for his resignation after opposition members carried two duffel bags full of cash into the assembly building, alleging that the prime minister's allies had used the money to try to buy votes.
When Singh rose to address the members, he was shouted down by opponents chanting, "Be ashamed, be ashamed," and, "Thief." The prime minister, in his trademark blue turban, sat nonplussed, shuffling through files. His government secured 275 votes in the 541-member lower chamber of Parliament; his opponents secured 256 votes; 10 members abstained.
In the intensely fought battle, Singh's allies won by wooing support from smaller, regional parties and independent lawmakers and by encouraging either abstentions or defections. Political parties went so far as to arrange for legislators who had been jailed to be temporarily released so they could cast votes. A couple of others were pushed into Parliament in wheelchairs despite their medical ailments and hospital treatments.
For Singh, a member of the Congress party who has never won a direct election, the vote was one of the biggest victories of his political career. His ruling coalition was forced to call the vote of confidence after a group of communist allies withdrew their support. The parties argued that the U.S. nuclear deal tied India's foreign policy too closely to American interests. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main opposition party, demanded that the deal be renegotiated so New Delhi would not be "a junior partner" and would maintain the right to conduct nuclear tests.
Under the historic deal, India would open 14 of its civilian atomic reactors to international inspections. In return, it would be able to develop its civilian nuclear program without having to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
"The irony is that for India, this is the best deal since sliced bread. It's hard to imagine a deal that could have been sweeter," Sharon Squassoni, a senior associate in the nonproliferation program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said in a telephone interview. "India has been given all the benefits without any of the responsibilities of moving toward nuclear disarmament."
But in a country with a long history of suspicion toward Washington, there are remnants of knee-jerk anti-Americanism. Singh was labeled a U.S. stooge, and critics feared the deal would force India to sever its historical ties with Iran.
The prime minister's allies, however, argued that the deal was crucial to India's quest for superpower status.
"We have to start thinking like a big and powerful country. Let us not worry about how the world is going to impact us, but think of how India can impact the world," Rahul Gandhi, the ruling Congress party's heir apparent, said during Tuesday's debate. "We must never take our decision based on the fear of the unknown."
At one point during the debate Tuesday, three members of the BJP rushed to the well of the chamber and waved the wads of cash, shouting that Singh's allies had tried to buy their support for the deal.
"This is a shameful day for Indian democracy -- all for the sake of this nuclear deal," said Brinda Karat, a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). "How low can this government fall in their desperation to please America?"
With the government's survival, the negotiations on the historic agreement will next be taken up Aug. 1 at the International Atomic Energy Agency.
"We have wasted a lot of time and political energy in building consensus for the nuclear deal in India. Now there is very little time left to complete the international procedures," said retired Gen. Ved Prakash Malik, president of the Institute of Security Studies. "Even the Parliament debate became a political show. Members raised issues of price rise, loan waiver for farmers and murky deals. The real issue, that is the nuclear agreement, got diluted somewhere."
Many political observers said the vote strengthened Singh's political stature. At the same time, though, the corruption charges against his allies sullied his clean image.
"He may have won the vote in Parliament, but Manmohan Singh has suffered a moral defeat," said Shahnawaz Hussain, a lawmaker with the opposition BJP. "This government has bent every rule, engaged in highly immoral acts to push the nuclear deal, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's hands are dirty."