Sparks fly in parliament as PM vows to win trust vote

By M.R. Narayan Swamy, IANS,

New Delhi : A confident Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Monday pledged to win the trust vote in parliament “100 percent”, as the ruling coalition and the opposition clashed, at times acrimoniously, on the first day of a two-day debate over the contentious India-US nuclear deal.

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External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee won praise from a visibly pleased Manmohan Singh after he tore apart critics of the nuclear deal, which at one time threatened to topple the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.

Amid reports that the UPA and the disparate opposition were almost evenly poised in the 545-seat Lok Sabha, UPA sources said they were banking on absenteeism by at least 10 MPs of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led grouping to score an easy win Tuesday. Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee has declared she will not vote Tuesday.

In a full house, one needs 272 MPs to win the parliament vote. The Lok Sabha’s effective strength is 542, with two seats vacant and one member barred from voting.

Manmohan Singh, who entered the house after flashing a “V” sign, said at recess Monday: “I am confident of winning the trust vote. Pranab’s speech was excellent. Pranab presented the case in an excellent way. I don’t know what the opposition can say now. We are 100 percent sure that we are going to win.”

Manmohan Singh’s claim of victory was the most positive from the UPA stable after Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati dramatically rallied the opposition against the nuclear deal Sunday, forcing many to believe by night that the Tuesday result could go any way. The fears still persist.

The debate – watched by millions on television – was necessitated after the four Left parties withdrew support to the UPA government, reducing it to a minority. Congress president Sonia Gandhi sat through the debate, listening attentively to everyone. She appeared pleased by Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Praful Patel, who late in the evening denounced the Left for triggering instability.

Initiating the debate in the morning, Manmohan Singh said the trust vote was “fully avoidable” because he had promised to return to parliament before operationalising the nuclear deal.

“I have repeatedly assured all, including the Left parties, that I myself would come to the guidance of parliament before operationalising the nuclear deal, if we were allowed to go to the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) to finalise the India-specific safeguards agreement),” he said.

In a speech that aides said he drafted after coming to parliament around 10.30 a.m., the prime minister said he regretted that the government had to seek a trust vote at a time its attention was focussed on controlling soaring food prices.

And in a clear dig at Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) general secretary Prakash Karat, Manmohan Singh praised the “sagacity, wisdom and visionary leadership” of CPI-M veterans Jyoti Basu and Harkishan Singh Surjeet who he said were the architects of the 2004 decision to form a UPA-Left coalition government.

Speaking later, External Affairs Minister Mukherjee, in a widely acclaimed piece of oratory, said the nuclear deal was the passport for India to end its nuclear apartheid and isolation it was subjected to for 30 years.

“It is our passport to the international community. If you have a passport only then you can apply for a visa and enter another country. This nuclear deal is like our passport. We can now apply for the visa and go to other countries,” Mukherjee said, while trying to explain the benefits of signing the deal.”

Dismissing the opposition’s charge that the government used stealth while negotiating the deal, Mukherjee went into great detail on the number of times debates and discussions were held in parliament on the issue. “I don’t remember any foreign policy issue that has ever been so intensely or exhaustively debated in parliament as the civil nuclear deal.”

After Mukherjee ended his speech, an elated prime minister shook his hand.

Earlier, L.K. Advani, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate and leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, vowed to renegotiate the nuclear deal if his party came to power.

In his hour-long speech in which he covered a range of issues, including internal security and the price rise, Advani said he was neither against nuclear energy nor against a “strategic relationship” with the US. He added that the BJP had no objections to strategic ties with the US, Japan or Russia.

“We are not at all opposed (to) a relationship with America. (But) irrespective of how powerful the country, we would not like India to be a party to an agreement which is unequal,” he said. He stated that the India-US nuclear deal makes India a “subservient partner”.

There was a lot of acrimony in the house. At one point Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) MPs almost came to blows. Railway Minister Lalu Prasad screamed and screamed at the BJP benches. Many speakers faced repeated interruptions. Distressed over the unruly scenes, Speaker Somnath Chatterjee urged all MPs to conduct themselves in a dignified manner. He suspended business for 10 minutes.

The parliament debate was being keenly followed both by the US administration and the Indian diaspora.