NEW DELHI - Agence France-Presse
The future of India's coalition government and a controversial nuclear deal with the United States were hanging in the balance yesterday as parliament opened debate ahead of a key confidence vote.
The Indian government will collapse and early elections will be called if the coalition of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh loses a vote, expected to hold today. Experts say the outcome is too close to call.
Singh stirred up anger among his left-wing and communist allies by pushing ahead a nuclear accord with the United States which his government insists is essential to meet the energy needs of India's fast-growing economy.
Left-wingers, who triggered the vote by withdrawing their support, say the deal ties traditionally non-aligned India too closely with the United States, and would compromise the country's nuclear weapons program.
After days of trying to woo even tiny, fence-sitting parties, Singh voiced confidence that his government would survive and see through its last year in office.
"I would like to assure this house... that every single decision, every policy initiative we have taken was taken in fullest confidence that we are doing so in the best interests of our people," Singh told the Lok Sabha, or parliament.
"I have no doubt that the people of India will reaffirm their confidence in us."
So tight, so high:
The government needs a simple majority of votes, but opposition parties -- including the left and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) -- are equally confident they can push the world's largest democracy into early polls.
If the government loses the vote, elections must be held within six months. Experts say they would likely take place once the monsoon season ends in late September.
The race is so tight, and the stakes so high, that the government has let six MPs serving jail terms out to vote. Meanwhile the opposition has paid for charter flights to bring in ailing lawmakers, including one who has had heart bypass surgery, politicians said.
"The government is like a patient in an intensive care unit. The first question naturally asked is, 'is he going to survive or not?'" BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani said as the marathon debate opened.
The communists and BJP are also trying to widen the terms of the debate.
They have been speaking out against rising food and fuel prices -- inflation is currently around 12 percent -- and arguing that hundreds of millions of poor have been left behind by India's economic boom.
But the core issue is the nuclear deal -- which spans India's energy security as well as its place in the world.
India, which tested nuclear weapons in 1974 and 1998 and refuses to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, is currently barred from buying nuclear technology and fuel.
The deal would allow such purchases but subject India's civilian nuclear sites to international controls -- aimed at ensuring that any purchases are not diverted for military uses.
Opponents say the deal would compromise India's position as a beacon of neutrality, and that the requisite UN inspections would limit India's ability to develop its weapons program and deter its main regional rival Pakistan.
They also argue that there are strings attached -- and doing a deal with Washington would undermine its freedom to buy oil and gas from countries like Iran, or shop for armaments with traditional suppliers like Russia.
"We are not against nuclear energy. We are not against a very close relationship with America. But we would never like India to become party to an agreement which is unequal," the BJP's Advani told parliament."This deal makes us a subservient partner. It makes India a junior partner," he argued, saying the BJP would renegotiate the accord.