India PM won’t back down

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From combined dispatches

NEW DELHI — India’s prime minister has dared leftist allies to withdraw support for his government, saying in an interview published yesterday that he will not go back on a civil nuclear-energy deal with the United States.

Manmohan Singh told top leaders of the communist parties, whose support is vital for his coalition government’s survival, that the agreement is “an honorable deal” and will not be renegotiated.

The left parties rejected the agreement, finalized last month after two years of intense negotiations, saying it compromises India’s nuclear sovereignty, is an unequal and unfair deal, and accepts American hegemony.

“I told them that it is not possible to renegotiate the deal,” Mr. Singh said in an interview with the Calcutta-based Telegraph newspaper, referring to his conversation with the left’s leaders earlier last week.

“It is an honorable 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 added.

In a quick reaction, Sitaram Yechury, a senior leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) — the largest in the left bloc — said they have a right to protest.

“Registering political protest is a legitimate right in a democracy,” he told Reuters in southern Hyderabad city. “What we shall do further, my party and the left will decide soon.”

The nuclear agreement must be approved by the U.S. Congress and the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group. It seeks to open full nuclear-energy cooperation with energy-starved India after a gap of 30 years. This cooperation was suspended after India conducted nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998.

At present, nuclear energy fulfills only about 3 percent of India’s energy requirement. If the deal is implemented, India, Asia’s third-largest economy, could access nuclear fuel and reactors to augment its economy, which has grown at an average of 8.6 percent over the last four years.

India’s Hindu nationalist opposition also slammed the deal, for reasons more or less similar to those of the left.

Mr. Singh is likely to make a statement in Parliament tomorrow against the backdrop of rising pressure on the government to put the deal to a vote in Parliament.

Mr. Singh said the agreement “enlarges India’s development options, particularly in regard to energy security and environmental protection, and it doesn’t in any way affect our ability to pursue our nuclear weapons program.”

“We have not surrendered an iota of our freedom in this regard; not an iota of our sovereignty,” he added.

Later in the day, Mr. Singh sought to assuage differences over the deal with the communists and dismissed chances the dispute might trigger a snap election.

“All these problems can be resolved and will be resolved amicably,” he told reporters.

Analysts said there is scant likelihood the left would withdraw its support for the government and make it easier for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party to come back to power.

“There’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that they will withdraw support. They have no desire to pave the way for a return of the BJP,” veteran columnist Prem Shankar Jha told Agence France-Presse.

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