Journalist | Writer | Analyst
22 July 2008
An endgame with no clear winners
When a patient is staring death in the face, the dividing line between self-preservation and self-destruction can be rather thin. In medieval times, leeches were often attached to a dying patient’s body in the belief that the ‘bad’ blood they drew out would help breathe life into him. But even if this drastic remedy worked, the doctor had to know when it was safe to cast aside the pet parasites. Let them feed too long and the sick man might never recover; remove them too soon and they may not have time to deliver their ‘cure’.
Ever since the Left parties withdrew their support from the United Progressive Alliance, the Congress party has sought to prolong the life of the government it leads by resorting to leech therapy. Beginning with the Samajwadi Party, it has struck deals with a range of parties and individuals to ensure at least 271 votes when the confidence motion is put to test on July 22. Some of these deals involve concessions that are in the public domain – a file speeded up here, a cabinet berth promised there — but the most critical indulgences sought and granted are the ones not being advertised.
Whatever they are, these deals could prove counterproductive for the Congress at four levels. First, the perception has gotten around that the UPA will go to any length to win this vote, even if this means accommodating demands that ought not to be accommodated. The Congress may carry the day but its reputation will have been diminished as a result. Second, creating the impression that the SP’s pet agendas will be pursued with vigour has given Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati a compelling reason to go flat out to unseat the government. Third, the impression that one section of big capital is being pandered to has galvanized another section into action, and it is far from clear what the overall effect of this corporate intervention will be for the Congress. Fourth, the understanding with the SP is clearly not momentary. As it matures into a full-fledged political alliance involving seat-sharing in Uttar Pradesh, the compact will represent the Congress’s formal abandonment of any hope of revival in India’s politically most important state.
To the negative consequences of this naked power play must be added the folly of submitting the fate of the party and government to the dictates of the American electoral datebook rather than the rhythms of the Indian political system. It is no secret that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi are moving full speed ahead on the nuclear deal because the Bush administration will relinquish office at the end of the year. Though there is no reason to expect that a delay on India’s part will lead to better terms as and when the nuclear deal is finally operationalised, there was also no reason to assume the threads of the current process would be impossible to pick up once a new president is installed in the White House in January 2009. To argue that is to lend credence to the fears many have expressed about the next U.S. president and Congress not being in synch with the understandings the Bush administration leaves behind on issues ranging from the significance of the Hyde Act’s preambular sections to the precise meaning of some of the provisions of the 123 agreement.
If the Congress was unable to carry the Left along and believed the nuclear deal to be an issue of such urgency, it should have sought a fresh electoral mandate as early as last November. That is the time when, according to the Prime Minister’s advisers, Dr. Manmohan Singh realized the Left would never allow him to proceed. Instead, the party dithered for a whole year — allowing the fatal perception to gain ground that its government was paralysed by indecisiveness — before taking the final desperate plunge on July 8. If the Congress squandered the better part of its reputation by doing nothing for a whole year, it is now destroying what remains by trying to do too much, too soon.
As it stands today, the nuclear deal’s contours address most if not all of the major concerns the Department of Atomic Energy had raised in the course of the debate over the past two years. If implemented in the way it is promised, it would increase the country’s energy options in the long-run. But no deal is so good that it merits the short-circuiting of democratic propriety through horse-trading or worse.
If the Congress suffers from a lack of credibility, it largely has itself to blame. In July 2005, it made two fatal blunders. First, it oversold the energy argument by falsely suggesting imported nuclear power could be the answer to India’s electricity needs in the short or even medium term rather than being a modest, but no less necessary, additionality. Second, it marketed the nuclear deal as the cornerstone of a strategic alliance with the U.S., without realizing that Indians are deeply ambivalent about such a partnership with Washington. It then compounded this blunder by capitulating to American pressure over Iran in 2005 and 2006, something which is evident even today in the complete lack of urgency with which negotiations over the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline are being pursued. Yet another blunder was committed in 2006 when the Indian leadership failed to impress upon the American side in a timely fashion the problems that had emerged in the Hyde legislative process. When the Hyde Act was finally passed in a form that India found problematic, the government brushed aside its implications rather than identifying and taking specific steps to insulate the country from any future American pressure.
As a result, even though the DAE-led negotiating team finally produced a safeguards text that provides a framework to address India’s concerns, the Government has been unable to win the battle for public opinion. Even if the government wins the trust vote on Tuesday, the Prime Minister and the Congress will not be able to live down the taint of impropriety surrounding their victory. Since the maximum controversy has been caused by specific conditions embedded in the Hyde Act and 123 agreement, it is only fair that the decision on operationalising these be left to the government which comes to power after another general election. Dissolving the House and calling for elections after the Nuclear Suppliers Group amends its guidelines to provide India a clean, clear and unconditional exemption would be the morally and politically correct thing to do. The safeguards agreement makes it clear that there is no “auto-pilot” since the first Indian reactor will be subject to IAEA scrutiny only after separate fuel supply arrangements are tied up after the 123 is ratified by the U.S. Congress. However, precisely because there are misgivings in both countries — as well as differences in interpretation — about several clauses in the 123, it is best if the decision on operationalising that agreement were made after elections are held in both India and the U.S.
Strategic alliance to roll on
For the Left, the biggest danger is that most of the parties working alongside it to topple the UPA government are actually ardent champions of a strategic alliance with the United States. In his recent interview to The Hindu, BJP leader L.K. Advani made this clear several times. Other NDA and UNPA constituents such as the Akali Dal, Shiv Sena, Telugu Desam Party and Biju Janata Dal are also openly pro-American. As for Mayawati and the Bahujan Samaj Party, there is nothing in her programme or speeches to suggest she is at all averse to the underlying trend in the bilateral relationship with the U.S. – especially military-to-military cooperation, which has emerged as the foundation.
If the UPA wins the trust vote, the Samajwadi Party will not stand in the way of an accelerated strategic partnership. Indeed, the U.S. will use the opportunity to press on the gas pedal on some of its other key demands such as the opening up of the insurance sector. But if the UPA loses and fresh elections are held in November, the Left may well find its ability to influence the Centre has diminished.
Who then is likely to emerge the winner from this stand-off? For the U.S., the nuclear deal is of peripheral interest; what really matters to Washington is its ability to shape India’s strategic choices through military interoperability and acquisitions and a range of other forms of engagement. The arrangement which prevailed in Delhi till July 8 was the worst possible one from an American point of view because of the Left’s ability to calibrate the degree of this engagement. This ability was not always used effectively – even as it has vetoed the nuclear deal, for example, military-to-military cooperation continues to proceed at breakneck speed – but the Left’s presence was always an irritant. Now that the Left is out, Washington is confident that in any of three emerging political scenarios — a Congress-led coalition minus the Left, a BJP-led coalition, or a weak Third Front with Congress or even BJP support – the Communists would wield less influence than they do today. Even in a Mayawati-led front, the nuclear deal may remain paralysed but there is an odds-on chance that the underlying strategic agenda will surge ahead.
In an article written soon after the 123 text was made public, I had suggested that one way for India to nail down any ambiguities of interpretation in the 123 agreement was to balance the U.S. Hyde Act with an amendment to the Indian Atomic Energy Act “making it illegal for nuclear material or equipment to be transferred out of the country if the transfer would disrupt the continuous operation of our power reactors or pose an environmental or security risk”. (‘Deal breather, not deal breaker’, The Hindu, August 20, 2007). This suggestion has since been picked up by the BJP leader, L.K. Advani, and has also been accepted as a possibility by the UPA government at the highest level.
While it is possible to find technical and legal remedies for the nuclear deal’s deficiencies, the struggle against a strategic alliance with America was always going to be political. And that struggle has to be ongoing, rather than one shot. By reversing the equation and forcing a one shot political fix to the nuclear deal, the Left is likely to find that the domestic realignment it has inadvertently triggered will make the more important struggle harder to win.