India paves way for nuclear agreement

India's government survived a motion of confidence in Parliament Tuesday, paving the way for a landmark nuclear agreement with the U.S., but leaving the parliamentary process tainted by allegations of bribery.

In a wider margin of victory than predicted, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who initiated the confidence motion, won by 275 votes to 256.. It came on the heels of two days of debate and heckling of speakers.

The significance of the vote goes beyond the survival of Singh's administration or the fate of the issue on which he staked his legacy: an agreement initiated by the Bush administration more than two years ago to allow India access to nuclear fuel and technology on the world market.

The nuclear deal, hailed as a centerpiece of deepening India-U.S. friendship, now needs the approval of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and the U.S. Congress.

In India, the real impact of Tuesday's vote will be felt as political parties in India's deeply fractured political system prepare for national elections before this government's term ends expires in May 2009.

The confidence vote has rearranged political alliances, sharpened the divide between political adversaries, and threatened to intensify public cynicism toward elected leaders.

“The polite veils that are thrown over the workings of democracy have been lifted,” the president of the nonpartisan Center for Policy Research observed. “Politics is going to get really, really ugly.”

In the most divisive moment of the two-day debate, three lawmakers with the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party charged that Singh's new allies, a North Indian regional party called Samajwadi, had offered them $750,000 each in exchange for abstaining from the confidence vote.

BJP leaders appeared before television cameras to detail the bribery allegations, and Samajwadi leaders went on air to deny the charges.

A private news television station said it had acquired what it called a “cash for votes” tape that was handed over to the speaker of the parliament. Another station dubbed the entire incident “cash-gate.”

The run-up to the vote has been marked by repeated allegations of bribes, but no concrete proof has been offered.

After the vote, which Singh called “a convincing victory,” the prime minister told reporters that he hoped it would send a message to the world: “That India is prepared to take its rightful place in the comity of nations.”

Singh has pushed the accord as essential to India's ability to advance its civilian energy needs at a time when the country has faced dire energy shortages that are crimping the growth of its economy.

His one-time supporters in the Communist Party strongly oppose the deal, fearing it would deepen relations with Washington.