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India's Congress Led-Coalition, Political Opposition Woo Support Ahead of Confidence Vote

India's Congress-led coalition government and its political opponents are wooing support ahead of a crucial confidence vote to be held next week. As Anjana Pasricha reports, the vote was triggered by deep political divisions over a controversial civilian nuclear deal with the United States.

When Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh decided, earlier this month, to move forward with a civilian nuclear pact signed with the United States, he had to put the survival of his government at stake. If concluded, the pact will give India access to global nuclear commerce from which it has been shut out for decades, because it has not signed the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty.

But strong political opposition to the pact has reduced Mr. Singh's government to a minority, prompting him to seek a confidence vote in a two-day session of parliament, starting Monday.

On the front-line of those opposing the pact are Communist parties, who have pulled back support to the Congress-led coalition. They are vowing to do all they can to ensure the government will be defeated and forced to shelve the nuclear deal.

Analysts say that, for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the nuclear pact is important enough to risk his government.

Independent political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan says the prime minister sees the deal as the showpiece achievement of his tenure, putting India in a select group of nations that have a nuclear weapons program, and access to nuclear commerce.

"He sees it as important, in terms of bringing India into that international comity of nations, that trade in nuclear materials and technology," he said. "India is not been part of that trade. Further, and this is significant, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, sees a strategic partnership with the U.S. as essential to India [long term interest]."

But Communist parties accuse the prime minister of putting Washington's interests before that of his own people and say the pact will give the United States too much leverage on India's foreign and nuclear policy.

The head of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Prakash Karat, says the government is spending all its energy on sealing the nuclear deal, at a time when its priority should be to fight runaway inflation and poverty.

Karat says his party will never agree to become a "junior partner of the United States". He says the government is devising policies to promote American interests in India.

As the vote looms ahead, unlikely political alliances are being lined up in New Delhi, because the outcome of the vote will hinge on small political groups who have not yet decided which side to support.

The Communists and the main opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party are usually on opposite sides of the political spectrum. However, this time, both are trying to influence undecided members of parliament to vote against the government.

The Congress Party, on its part, has lined up a new ally, a former rival called the Samajwadi Party, to make-up for the loss of the Communists. But the Samajwadi Party, alone, cannot take the government past the half-way mark in the 545 member lower house of parliament. The leadership is in talks with small groups to enlist their support.

Political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan says political deals are likely to be made with the small parties, ahead of the vote.

"The government is on tenterhooks," he said. "So, incidentally, are the opponents of the government. There are political agreements to be struck. Some of the smaller parties do have rather important platforms of their own. One for them, for instance, wants a smaller state. Another believes ethanol ought to be subsidized."

Political opponents of the Congress Party are accusing the it of bending backwards to accommodate demands from smaller groups - accusations Congress strongly denies.

The Congress Party says it is confident of winning the vote, but appears prepared for the unexpected. Congress Party General Secretary Rahul Gandhi says the nuclear deal is an "exceptional deal" for the country.

"When you are convinced that something is in the interest of the country, numbers don't matter," he said. "We are going to win the vote, but, even if we don't, it does not matter, because the decision [deal] is in the interests of this country."

A victory for the government will mean it can seek approvals from the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Suppliers Group so that the deal can then go the U.S. Congress for approval. A defeat will mean early elections for India and a period of political uncertainty.