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Indian parliament opens debate ahead of confidence vote

July 22, 2008

NEW DELHI, July 21: The future of India’s coalition government and a controversial nuclear deal with the United States were hanging in the balance on Monday 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 on Tuesday, and TV projections showed the outcome could go either way by just a few ballots.

Singh has angered his left-wing and communist allies by pushing ahead a nuclear accord with Washington which his government insists is essential to meet the energy needs of India’s fast-growing economy.

Communist leaders, 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 programme.

After days of trying to woo small, fence-sitting parties, Singh voiced confidence his government would see through its last year in office.

“I have no doubt that the people of India will reaffirm their confidence in us,” Singh told the Lok Sabha, or parliament.

The government needs a simple majority of votes, but opposition parties -- including the Communists and the main opposition Hindu extremist 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 -- most likely once the monsoon season ends in late September.

The race is so tight 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.

BJP leader Lal Krishan Advani said, however, that it was the government that was “like a patient in an intensive care unit.” The private NDTV news channel said the coalition had 271 votes in its favour, with 268 deputies against and just a few undecided.

CNN-IBN news put the government support at 269 votes with 268 against, but said some opposition deputies could abstain. The Times Now channel said that each for and against camp had 268 votes.

The communists and BJP are also trying to widen the terms of the debate -- speaking out against rising food and fuel prices, 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.

Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee said the government was merely trying to “solve our problems of the future,” saying it was India’s only hope of avoiding a gigantic energy crisis.

The country’s infrastructure is already creaking under the strain of a booming and increasingly urbanised population, and power cuts are frequent in all major cities.

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 to ensure any purchases are not diverted for military uses.

Opponents say the requisite UN inspections would limit India’s ability to develop its weapons programme 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.—AFP