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Glimmer of hope ahead of nuclear deal talks

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - The government meets its communist allies on Friday to try and soften their opposition to a landmark nuclear deal with the United States amid conflicting signals from left leaders.

Prakash Karat (R), the chief of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M), and Sitaram Yechury, a senior communist leader are seen in New Delhi in this October 22, 2007 file photo. The government meets its communist allies on Friday to try and soften their opposition to a landmark nuclear deal with the United States. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

The communists, who shore up Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s coalition from the outside, have threatened to withdraw support if the government pursues the deal, which they say impinges on India’s sovereignty and imposes American influence.

Their unrelenting stand forced the government to pause the deal last month, avoiding seeking clearances from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), one of the next three steps needed to clinch the deal.

However, some communist leaders said this week that they could consider allowing the government to hold talks with the IAEA -- but not sign a pact without their approval -- if a joint panel of coalition and communist leaders formed to resolve the crisis agreed.

The panel is due to hold talks later on Friday.

“Whatever proposals come before the committee the left will consider and on this basis a new stand may emerge,” Sitaram Yechury, a senior leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the largest left party, told reporters.

“Don’t presume anything,” he said on the eve of the meeting. “Our earlier stand on the operationalisation stands.”

The India-U.S. civilian nuclear cooperation agreement aims to reverse a three-decade ban on New Delhi’s access to American nuclear fuel and equipment to help one of the world’s fastest growing economies meet its soaring energy needs.

It has been hailed as the symbol of a new strategic friendship between the once-estranged democracies.

But critics say it undermines non-proliferation efforts as it rewards India, which has not signed the non-proliferation treaty and tested nuclear weapons.

Although it faces no formal deadlines, Washington is keen the deal be approved by U.S. Congress -- the final step before nuclear commerce can begin -- during the term of President George W. Bush and before campaigning picks up for presidential elections next year.

Some analysts say the communists were seeking to divert attention from the political violence blamed on their cadres in the eastern stronghold state of West Bengal by indicating some likely flexibility over the nuclear deal.

“From the perspective of India’s national interest, however, they have only moved from irrational posturing to a set of unreasonable demands,” the Indian Express said in an editorial on Thursday.

“The real question is whether the Congress leadership has the political will to do what is right by the nation and move decisively towards the implementation of the civil nuclear initiative,” it said referring to India’s ruling party.