Notwithstanding minor differences over
the draft of the nuclear liability bill, the fact that the Congress
and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - and even the Left - are on
the same page on its passage through parliament is a positive sign.
Considering that the BJP had sided with the Left in 2008 to oppose
the India-US nuclear deal, its decision to team up with the Congress
this time is more than a reappraisal of its earlier stance. It shows
that the BJP has become mature enough to put aside partisan
interests for a national cause.
Opinions may differ on whether legislation of this nature is in the
national interest - the Communists do not think so - but an
agreement between the two major parties with nearly 50 percent of
the national vote suggests that they are reflecting the views of the
majority of people.
Arguably, the BJP's rethinking has followed an internal assessment
which showed that it made a mistake in opposing the nuclear deal.
Even when it took the contrarian stand two years ago, it was
believed to be alienating the increasingly vocal upper and middle
classes. Since then, these doubts must have deepened because the
Congress' electoral success in 2009 was partly ascribed to the
passage of the nuclear deal.
It is worth noting that the two voluble opponents of the deal in the
BJP - former union ministers Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie - have
maintained a deafening silence this time. The only major critic has
been the Left, whose ideological aversion to the US and the West
makes it wary of any transactions with them.
However, the objections of the comrades relate more to the details
of the legislation than to its basic objective. Evidently realising
that the nuclear deal has irrevocably paved the way for the setting
up of nuclear power stations with American and European
collaboration, the Communists are focussing on preconditions which
are patently unacceptable.
For instance, while the Congress and the BJP have agreed to raise
the limit of compensation for accidents from Rs.500 crore (over $110
million) to Rs.1,500 crore, the Left wants it to be increased to the
absurdly high level of Rs.10,000 crore ($2200 million). If anything,
this position confirms its known penchant for having a problem for
It has to be remembered, however, that the issue of compensation
from overseas companies is an emotional issue in India because of
the Union Carbide's alleged miserliness after the Bhopal gas tragedy
and the perceived insensitiveness of its chairman, Warren Anderson.
With regard to the liability bill, the Left has been joined in its
opposition by parties of the Hindi heartland - also derisively known
as the cow belt - like the Bihar-based Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)
and Lok Janashakti Party (LJP) and the Uttar Pradesh-based Samajwadi
Party. Since their outlook is limited to their own states, they are
not interested so much in what may - or may not - be of long-term
value for the nation as in what can serve their more immediate
Considering that Bihar is going to the polls in a few months and
Uttar Pradesh just over a year later, these parties are trying to
reach out to the Muslims in the belief that the latter are opposed
to anything that has to do with the Americans. It is doubtful,
however, whether all Muslims have the same aversion to the US as the
Islamic fundamentalists. Instead, there is every reason to believe
that their thinking on domestic and international issues varies very
little from the points of view of the Hindus and other communities.
Perhaps aware of this aspect, the RJD, the LJP and the Samajwadi
Party have advanced another reason to explain the Congress-BJP
understanding. The RJD, the LJP and the Samajwadi Party have alleged
that this rather unusual closeness of the Congress and the BJP is
the result of a secret deal relating to Gujarat Chief Minister
Narendra Modi's present travails.
As is known, Modi has been under the scanner for his role in the
2002 Gujarat riots and other acts of omission and commission. A
probe into these matters by a Special Investigation Team set up by
the Supreme Court has led to the arrest by the Central Bureau of
Investigation (CBI) of two former ministers of state for home
affairs in Modi's cabinet, Amit Shah and Gordhan Zadaphia, and of
another minister, Maya Kodnani, earlier.
The BJP is nervous about the possibility of the needle of suspicion
finally turning towards Modi, thereby dealing a demoralising blow to
both the Gujarat strong man and the party. The three Hindi belt
parties believe that the BJP has extracted a promise from the
Congress to make the CBI go easy on Modi in exchange for supporting
the nuclear liability bill.
Only time will show the truth or otherwise of these assertions. But
what is important at present is the fact that the two national
parties have shed their earlier habit of instinctively opposing
whatever the other proposed.
This attitude is still evident in the BJP's opposition to the Goods
and Services Tax (GST), which the Manmohan Singh government is
trying to push through. The BJP had also demonstrated a similar
adamancy earlier with regard to the Value Added Tax (VAT) till
better sense prevailed.
If the proximity of the Congress and the BJP on the liability bill
sets a new trend, it will mark the coming of age of Indian
Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org