Congress-BJP pact on n-liability bill is sign of political maturity (Comment)

By Amulya Ganguli, IANS
Saturday, August 21, 2010

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 every solution.

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 electoral prospects.

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 parliamentary democracy.

(21.08.2010-Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at

Filed under: Politics

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