Updated: August 6, 2021 7:41:57 am
In his new book The Long Game: How the Chinese Negotiate with India (Penguin Random House India), former Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale has written that China had used its “close connections” with Left parties in India to “build domestic opposition” to the Indo-US nuclear deal between 2007 and 2008. Gokhale was Joint Secretary (East Asia) during 2007-09, and was dealing with China in the Ministry of External Affairs.
The claims in his book have brought the spotlight back on the UPA-Left tussle and their bitter partition.
The support and the split
The four Left parties, keeping at bay their long-held ideological and political opposition to the Congress, had decided to extend support to the UPA government from outside in 2004 to stop the BJP from returning to power. But no one expected it to be a smooth relationship, and there were several irritants along the way.
It peaked in the wake of then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s landmark visit to the US in the summer of 2005. After wide-ranging discussions with President George W Bush, India and the US issued a joint statement aimed at cementing the bilateral relationship – the centrepiece of which was the decision to renew civil nuclear cooperation.
On July 21, the CPI(M) raised the first red flag against the civil nuclear deal. In the months and years that followed, the rift between the government and the Left kept widening.
The final act came in the summer of 2008 when the Left bloc withdrew its support to the UPA government, pushing it regime into a minority. The government, however, survived the no-confidence motion that followed.
CPM versus US
The CPM and the CPI, which once looked up to the Russian and Chinese Communist parties for inspiration and maintain warm relations with them, had long opposed closer strategic and military ties with the “imperialist” US. They raised red flags when the P V Narasimha Rao government signed an agreement on defence relations with the US. They opposed the A B Vajpayee government’s efforts to forge closer military relations with the US including cooperation on missile defence. The CPM observed March 21, 2000 — the first day of the visit of then US President Bill Clinton — as a day of protest against US imperialism.
On July 1, 2005, the CPM Politburo said about the India-US defence deal: “the defence agreement comes at a time when the United States is actively working to prevent China from enhancing its defence potential. What is unstated in this agreement is the US aim of containment of China using India as a counter-weight.”
Through 2005, the Left parties kept warning the government against deepening Indo-US ties. On July 31, two days after Prime Minister Singh made a statement in Parliament on his visit to the US, the CPM Politburo said “the joint statement issued after the Prime Minister’s visit shows the continuation of the trend of India being accommodated as an ally of the US with decisions such as the joint democracy initiative and accepting the US leadership in the fight against terrorism.”
In March 2006, the Left parties organised street protests when US President Bush visited India. The nuclear deal was signed during this visit.
The differences started to turn serious in mid-2006 when the CPM began accusing the US of shifting goalposts.
On July 23, it said proposed Bills drafted by the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and the House of Representatives Committee on International Relations contain provisions that are a clear departure from the understanding contained in the 2005 Singh-Bush agreement and the Separation Plan tabled in Parliament. The Left parties then demanded a discussion in Parliament.
In January 2007, the CPM said the legislation adopted by the US Congress (Hyde Act) to facilitate the nuclear deal has many objectionable clauses. It asked the government not to proceed without clearing all the extraneous terms and foreign policy implications. In July, even as the negotiations were about to conclude, the CPM again told the government that an agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation with the US can be based only on the assurances given by the Prime Minister in Parliament in August 2006, and by not accepting provisions contrary to India’s interests.
The real crisis began in August 2007 after the text of the ‘Agreement for Cooperation between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of India concerning peaceful uses of nuclear energy’, popularly known as the 123 agreement, was released by both governments. On August 7, the Left parties asked the government not to proceed further with the operationalising of the agreement and sought a review of the strategic aspects in Parliament.
They said the various conditions inserted into the Hyde Act were unacceptable and that its provisions are far wider than the 123 agreement and could be used to terminate the 123 agreement not only in the eventuality of a nuclear test but also for India not conforming to US foreign policy.
On August 8, then CPM general secretary Prakash Karat declared that “the deal is through but the Congress will have to pay a political price for it”. And on August 10, in an interview to The Telegraph, Prime Minister Singh virtually dared the Left parties to withdraw support. “I told them that it is not possible to renegotiate the deal. It is an honourable deal, the Cabinet has approved it, we cannot go back on it. I told them to do whatever they want to do, if they want to withdraw support, so be it…,” he said.
Days later, then CPI general secretary the late A B Bardhan declared that the “honeymoon” between UPA and Left was over and withdrawal of support to the central government appeared “inevitable”. Karat, however, nuanced it to say “the honeymoon may be over but the marriage can go on”.
On August 18, the CPM Politburo declared that until all the objections are considered and the implications of the Hyde Act evaluated, the government should not take the next step with regard to negotiating a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Both sides, however, agreed to give talks one last chance to prevent the fall of the government and early elections. In September 2007, a UPA-Left Committee on Indo-US civil nuclear cooperation was set up. A series of negotiations and political sniping followed, even as the government held negotiations with the IAEA for an India-specific safeguards agreement.
In November, at the sixth meeting of the UPA-Left Committee, it was decided that talks would be held with the IAEA secretariat for working out the text of the safeguards agreement, and the outcome of the negotiations would be placed before the Committee before proceeding further.
The Left parties said that while some of the features of the text were discussed in the Committee’s seventh and eighth meetings in March and May 2008, the text was not made available. And on June 18, the Left parties told the government not to proceed to seek approval of the text of the India-specific safeguards agreement from the IAEA Board of Governors. In the absence of the text, they said they had not been able to form any opinion.
Then External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee met Karat several times asking him to allow the government to go to the IAEA to seek approval of the text. The Left leaders argued that once the safeguards agreement was completed, the nuclear deal would be on auto pilot.
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On July 7, Prime Minister Singh en route to Japan to attend the G8 summit told reporters that India would “very soon” approach the IAEA for a safeguards agreement. He said the Government was not afraid of facing Parliament if the Left parties withdrew support.
On July 8, the Left decided to withdraw support, and made this public on July 9.
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