The U.N. nuclear watchdog's head arrived on Wednesday in India's capital for talks with government leaders, as concern grew a prolonged row with communists could scupper a nuclear deal with the United States or spark snap elections.
Mohamed ElBaradei, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief, will meet Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee as part of a long-scheduled trip coinciding with threats from the leftists to withdraw crucial parliamentary support if the deal moves ahead.
Both sides pulled back from the brink in talks on Tuesday, easing fears of imminent elections but raising worries the government was endangering nuclear accord with prolonged debate.
"No pause but go slow" said The Indian Express while the Times of India wrote "Survival instinct beats deal" after the two sides agreed to postpone further talks to October 22.
"Yesterday we saw the first sign that the election was not inevitable," political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan said. "The government may decide to go slow, which could put the deal in a coma."
Underscoring warmer ties with Washington, the deal would allow India to import U.S. nuclear fuel and reactors, despite having tested nuclear weapons and not signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
But the communists have warned the government against talking to the IAEA about placing civilian nuclear reactors under U.N. safeguards, a first step in making the deal operational.
That led to a face-off with the government, which faces an informal end-October deadline to begin securing clearances from the IAEA and others.
Local media reported that ElBaradei would meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi, but a government spokesman said "nothing had been scheduled as yet".
A meeting between top government officials and ElBaradei could infuriate the communists further, commentators say, if there were any reports there was discussion of IAEA safeguards.
The communists insist the deal would make India subservient to U.S. interests, but the government has seemed determined to seal the accord, potentially its biggest foreign policy achievement. Many analysts still see a snap vote as likely.
ElBaradei was careful in his words at the start of his trip on Tuesday, when he visited Mumbai.
"The IAEA is ready for talks whenever India approaches me for the talks," the IAEA chief told reporters. "I have always had fruitful discussions with the Indian government and it will be so in the future as well."
A snap election could also put the nuclear deal at risk by throwing the country into political limbo, but would not necessarily kill it. The government can still move ahead with the agreement without parliamentary approval.
But supporters say the deal must be finalized before the Bush administration comes to the end of its office. India still needs clearance from the IAEA, the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group and final approval from the U.S. Congress.
There were signs that smaller coalition parties -- facing possible losses in a snap vote -- were uneasy at the Congress party, which leads the ruling coalition, risking their political future on a deal surveys show is a low priority for most Indians.
"Some ministers and coalition partners are now asking. Do we really want an election?" political analyst C. Raja Mohan said.
Indian markets are worried the government may pass populist measures that would widen the fiscal deficit and that polls would lead to an unstable coalition.
Stocks rose more than 4 percent to a record high on Tuesday, helped by news the two sides would meet again.
The pact has been criticized by many outside India, including some members of the U.S. Congress who say it undercuts a U.S.-led campaign to curtail the nuclear ambitions of nations like Iran.