Indian government wins confidence vote


Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government won a vote of confidence in parliament today, ensuring the survival of the ruling coalition and a civilian nuclear deal with the United States.

The government said it would now push ahead with the pact, which would give India access to foreign nuclear fuel and technology and end decades of isolation, as well as work towards reforms to liberalise the trillion-dollar economy.

"This will send a message to the world at large that India's head and heart is sound, that India is prepared to take its rightful place in the comity of nations," Mr Singh told reporters. "I have always said the deal was important and now we know it."

The United States welcomed the support for the deal in India's parliament.

"We will work closely with the government of India in the days ahead for a rapid completion of the ratification process through the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the US Congress," David C. Mulford, the US ambassador to India, said in a statement.

The Indian government's joy at its victory was tempered by a bribery scandal, after opposition lawmakers interrupted the debate to wave wads of cash to protest against what they said were bribes offered by the government to abstain.

The furore was described as one of the lowest points in parliamentary history, and led to fresh demands for Mr Singh to resign, and catcalls preventing him from delivering his concluding remarks after the two-day debate.

The run-up to the confidence vote in the world's largest democracy was marked by both sides wooing regional and caste-based parties.

The government even renamed an airport to honour the father of a wavering lawmaker. Others, in jail for murder and extortion, were freed for a few days to cast their votes. Some ill members were wheeled in on hospital beds.

But in the end, the government won more comfortably than expected, by 275 votes to 256 with 10 abstentions.

The confidence vote was sparked by the withdrawal of the government's communist allies to protest against the nuclear deal, which they said would make India's security and energy policies dependent on the United States.

The deal makes India a de facto nuclear power despite not signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty and conducting nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998.

It could unlock $40 billion in investment over the next 15 years, according to an Indian business lobby group, as India seeks new energy sources to tap its booming economy.

Despite the parliamentary victory, it is unclear if there is enough time for the deal to be passed by the US Congress before the Bush administration leaves office in January.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos acknowledged Congress had limited time to address the issue this year, but said the Bush administration would push for its approval.

The agreement needs clearance from the governors of the UN atomic watchdog and a 45-nation group that controls sensitive nuclear trade.