NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India’s beleaguered prime minister is determined to push a nuclear deal with the United States despite stiff opposition from his communist allies, a lobbying group quoted him as saying. The historic deal has brought Manmohan Singh’s coalition to the brink of collapse as left parties that shore it up have threatened to end support if the pact is pursued.
Singh appeared to have given in and put the deal on the backburner earlier this month but has since said he remains hopeful of clinching it, sparking fresh political uncertainty and new questions over the agreement’s fate.
Singh told members of the U.S. India Political Action Committee (USINPAC), who met him late on Tuesday, that the nuclear agreement was the best way forward for India, the United States, and the world, a statement from the group said on Wednesday.
“We ... found him determined to take the U.S.-India civilian nuclear agreement forward despite some opposition typical in a vibrant democracy like India,” said Sanjay Puri, chairman of the Washington-based USINPAC.
“The message that the prime minister wanted the USINPAC delegation to take back to America was that his government is working to take this deal forward,” the statement added.
Singh, said Robinder Sachdev, USINPAC’s India unit head, hopes a debate on the deal in parliament during the winter session next month will help forge a political consensus, even though it does not need to be approved by parliament.
“He feels that a debate could help parliament see merit in the deal and that it is in the interest of the people of the country,” Sachdev told Reuters.
The deal faces an informal U.S. deadline related to securing approval of America’s Congress well before presidential polls next year.
“CALL COMMUNIST BLUFF”
The government and the communists have formed a joint panel to resolve the face-off but it has made little progress and is due to hold a final meeting on November 16 to draft its report.
The civilian nuclear cooperation deal aims to lift a three-decade ban on sales of U.S. nuclear fuel and reactors to India, imposed after it conducted a nuclear test in 1974, while staying out of non-proliferation agreements.
But the communists have rejected it, saying it hurts India’s sovereignty and imposes U.S. hegemony.
Other allies of Singh’s Congress party are seen more keen to avoid a snap poll over the deal, forcing the government’s hand.
Singh’s comments to the lobby group came as U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, Washington’s main negotiator for the pact, said it did not have an unlimited amount of time.
The U.S. administration wants the agreement to go to Congress for its backing by the end of the year, he said in New York on Tuesday.
That deadline would be virtually impossible to meet -- although it would not kill the pact -- if India does not move now to secure approvals from the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Suppliers Group of nations.
The image of Singh, an economist and reformer turned politician, has taken a beating since his apparent turnaround over the deal and there has been speculation in the media he might quit.
But the Times of India said on Wednesday he still had room to stand up to the communists.
“The government would be better off it were to make a fight of it. It could try calling the left’s bluff,” the newspaper said in an editorial.
While that could lead to early elections, it would give Singh’s party the option to return with a majority, the editorial said.
“That’s not such a bad option, compared to the alternative -- a paralysed and non-functional government that continues at sixes and sevens.”
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