It won't be hard to spot India's prime minister when he meets with President George Bush and leaders of the other G-8 countries on July 9 in Toyako, Japan Manmohan Singh's sky blue turban always stands out in a crowd of dark grey suits. But otherwise, he has much in common with them. At home he's facing an electorate that is growing increasingly frustrated with rising oil prices, interest rate hikes, a faltering stock market and anxiety about whether the country's surging economy will soon slow down.
But Singh hasn't come to commiserate. He's in Japan to have a few informal but crucial discussions about a deal between the U.S. and India to share civilian nuclear technology. The details of the deal are complex and technical, it may not get through the U.S. Congress, it has few enthusiastic supporters even in Singh's own centrist party, and he could lose his majority in Parliament over it. So why bother?
Critics say that Singh, who has a PhD in economics, is acting too much like a technocrat and not enough like a politician. Voters already blame Singh's Congress Party for India's 11% inflation. The nuclear deal may be good for the country in the long run India desperately needs fossil-fuel-free energy to power its economic boom but by pursuing it now Singh risks losing the support of the Leftist parties in the fractious political alliance that keeps him in power. By pressing the issue, he could also trigger elections as early as September, exposing Congress Party lawmakers to angry voters several months earlier than planned. "Manmohan should have concentrated on resuscitating his party's fortunes instead of frittering away weeks on a nuclear deal seemingly difficult to seal and deliver," wrote columnist Ajaz Ashraf in the July 7 issue of Outlook, an Indian newsmagazine.
But Singh may prove to be more of a political animal than he seems. He has just shored up support in Parliament by forging a new alliance with the regional Samajwadi Party. (The two parties are still doing the parliamentary math, but if Congress secures all of its newly pledged seats, it can keep its hold on power.) More importantly, by pushing for this unpopular nuclear agreement, Singh gives the Congress Party an opportunity to stake its ground in the next election as the only party that can help move India toward energy independence a goal that is just as urgent in India, where rising energy consumption is helping to push up prices everywhere, as it is in the U.S. "A lot of this has to do with communication," says Mahesh Rangarajan, a political analyst and professor of history at Delhi University.
Congress must connect the civilian nuclear deal with the issue that really motivates voters inflation by arguing that expanding its nuclear-energy capacity will make India less vulnerable to rising petroleum prices. Congress will have a chance to make this case when it unveils its election platform. But opponents are already attacking the deal, taking any sign of closer ties with the U.S. as evidence of Congress' submission to American imperialism. Nevermind that Bush has been criticized for giving away too much to India by agreeing to separate civilian and military nuclear issues. Leftist politicians may instead push even harder for populist measures like greater subsidies for gasoline. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party may also use the debate to do a little grandstanding by calling for a third nuclear weapons test as a show of India's national pride (Such tests are not part of the U.S.-India nuclear agreement.)
This deal has been declared all but dead before, but Bush and Singh are both eager to get the agreement signed while both of them are still in office. Bush, for his part, needs at least one clear foreign policy success, and an Indian nuclear deal would strengthen ties with India and open up the Indian market to U.S. nuclear power interests. And this time, Singh has withstood the pressure from the left that sidelined the deal in the past.
If, as expected, the Congress Party breaks with the Left and can clearly define itself as the party of economic reform and forward-thinking energy policy, Singh will have accomplished something historic giving the Congress Party's politicians a way to appeal to voters through its track record rather than its deep wells of patronage and the legacy of the Nehru-Gandhi family. The party "doesn't really have a history of being able to do this," says Sudha Pai, a professor at the Center for Policy Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. In 1996, voters kicked out the Congress Party even though it had passed economic liberalization measures that sparked the country's boom. The finance minister and architect of those reforms? Manmohan Singh. He didn't get credit for that bold gamble, but he's sure to get the credit or blame for this one.
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