Singhs government survives stormy confidence vote

India’s embattled coalition government survived a chaotic parliamentary confidence vote Tuesday, clearing the way for it to forge ahead with a civilian nuclear energy deal with the United States.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh won the backing of 275 deputies against 256 who opposed his Congress-led government, mainly left-wingers and Hindu nationalists, speaker Somnath Chatterjee said at the end of a raucous session.
Singh needed just a simple majority to survive and see through the last year of his mandate. Had he failed, the world’s largest democracy would have headed into early elections — with his opponents emboldened.
The result came after a tense hand-count of some votes that apparently were not properly recorded by machine and a furore over opposition allegations that the ruling coalition paid out large sums of cash in bribes to ensure its win.
The deal gives the government the green light to move forward with a pact with Washington designed to bring India into the global loop of nuclear commerce after decades of international isolation.
“This has sent an important message to the world that India is ready to take its rightful place in the committee of nations,” Singh told reporters, flashing a victory sign and smiling as he emerged from parliament building.
The deal would allow India, which has nuclear weapons and refuses to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to be treated as a special case on condition it separates its civil and military programmes and allows some UN inspections.
“This government has an absolute majority and the confidence to go forward,” Finance Minister P Chidambaram said, hailing a victory for what he said was the government’s ambitious agenda to modernise and reform India.
“Now we have crossed a major bridge that is the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal. Now, we will move ahead on economic and social reforms.”
Government officials gave an impassioned defence of the deal during two days of special debate, arguing that the country’s 1.1 billion people badly need alternative sources of energy to avert an impending fuel crunch.
“I am not interested in whether we won or lost. I think what is important here is what is right for India,” said Rahul Gandhi, the son of Congress leader Sonia and heir apparent of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.
However, the White House warned that time may be running out for Washington to ratify the pact.
“We think that we can move forward with this,” said spokeswoman Dana Perino, but “there aren’t that many days left where Congress is going to be in session.”
Left-wingers — who triggered the vote by withdrawing their support for Singh earlier this month — and the main opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had argued the deal would tie traditionally neutral India too closely with the United States.
They also argued it would compromise the country’s nuclear weapons programme and the ability to keep ahead of main regional rival Pakistan, also an atomic weapons state.
In what was seen as a last-ditch attempt to bring down the government, three BJP MPs took to the floor waving bundles of cash worth 30 million rupees (715,000 dollars) that they said they had been paid for their votes.
“Manmohan Singh’s office has turned into a mart of corruption, where MPs are bought and sold. So much money has changed hands that it’s reached a new level of corruption in India,” senior BJP official Vijay Kumar Malhotra told AFP.
“But ultimately we are the gainers, and we will win the next general election,” which is due by May 2009 at the latest, he said.
The Revolutionary Socialist Party, one of the four left-wing parties that forced the vote, said the government’s win had “blackened” the face of Indian democracy.
“We do not recognise this as a victory. They won because of intense horse-trading,” fumed party leader T.J. Chandrachoodan.
Officials in parliament said Chatterjee had called in New Delhi’s police chief to investigate the bribery claims. The speaker also said the furore was a “sad day in the history of parliament.”

Copyright AFP (Agence France-Presse), 2008