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J. Sri Raman: The Deal That Derails

The Deal That Derails

by J. Sri Raman,
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

George W. Bush may have run into rough weather acting on his doctrine of "regime change" effected through the unsubtle devices of aggression and occupation. He may succeed, however, in India, through a nuclear deal. Or, to put it more correctly, by a combination of the deal and the country's parliamentary democracy.

In a week or two, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's multiparty government may face a major threat to survival and India the prospect of a premature, midterm general election. Or, the government may manage to survive a major crisis through political manipulation. Behind the gathering storm lies the deal mooted in July 2005, during a Singh visit to Washington and hailed gleefully as a historic achievement by nuclear militarists of both nations.

This is likely the first-ever instance of a nuclear issue causing a political crisis of this kind, and probably even an election in a country of this size. The development, however, is not something that should delight India's exceedingly small but not entirely insignificant anti-nuclear weapons movement.

We will see why, but just a word first about the deal that is too notorious by now to need elaboration. Billed as a bilateral civil nuclear energy cooperation agreement, it has been sold in two totally different ways. The Bush administration boasts that India has been made to accept the obligations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) without being a signatory. Singh and his supporters, on the contrary, claim that India has won the advantages of the NPT without being a signatory to the treaty New Delhi has always denounced as "discriminatory."

The anti-nuke camp was quick to see the dangers of the deal, which won the instant support of every one whose dream was India as a nuclear super-power in strategic alliance with the USA.

It would have been a done deal long ago but for the minority character of the Singh government. Under India's constitution, the government does not need parliamentary ratification of any international pact. However, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime, headed by Singh's Congress Party, needed the outside support of the left parties, forming a fairly strong bloc with 59 seats in the Lok Sabha (the Lower House of India's parliament), for survival. And the left has only stiffened its opposition to the deal over years of protracted negotiations with the UPA.

The largest of the Left parties, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), declares its opposition thus in its latest statement on the subject: "The Congress leadership and the UPA government are propagating that the ... deal is absolutely essential for India's energy security. A massive disinformation campaign has been mounted that nuclear energy is a solution not only to the shortage of electricity in the country but also an answer to the oil price rise. This is nothing but a cover to promote the strategic ties with the US. As it is difficult to promote India-US strategic ties directly, therefore the recourse to false claims that nuclear energy will at one stroke not only reduce our oil consumption and but also remove our power shortages."

The main opposition, the far-right Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) also claims to oppose the deal, but on entirely different grounds. The party has repeatedly reiterated that it is not opposed to a "US-India strategic partnership," which it had initiated while in power during the term of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1998-2004). The BJP's opposition has been to the alleged capacity of the deal to "cap" India's nuclear weapons program. The stand only smacks of party politics, particularly after expressions of effusive support for the deal from nuclear militarists like former National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra and former President A. P.J. Abdul Kalam, closely associated with the Vajpayee government.

The latest political developments bring no delight to anti-nuke activists because these do not really promise a popular debate over the deal, originally struck behind the back of the parliament and the people. The nuclear issue may precipitate an election, but is unlikely to figure prominently in the poll campaign. It is just not the kind of issue that can be expected to grip the electorate at the grass roots. It cannot do so, as no section of the political spectrum has cared to educate the large masses about what should literally be a life-and-death issue for them.

Inflation, caused mainly by the spurt in international oil prices, is likely to prove a more impactful election issue. The possibility of the BJP returning to power at the head of a coalition cannot be ruled out. If this happens, the ultimate and ironical outcome of the political opposition to the deal will be a regime change that can only further and facilitate the cause of a US-India "strategic partnership."

The BJP, of course, has promised to "renegotiate" the deal if returned to power. Pro-deal friends of the party, however, are busy cautioning it against the folly of leaving the proposed nuclear partnership to its post-Bush fate. As they see it, the current occupant of the White House has extended India an opportunity which his successors may snatch away.

Not everyone in the anti-nuclear-weapon movement will share this optimism. Powerful interests in both countries, particularly the military-industrial complex in the USA, has stakes in the deal that are not going to disappear after the regime change in Washington.

Both Singh and Bush, however, appear anxious to ensure that the deal's "operationalisation" is not delayed much further. The deal will be done and cemented with the approval of US Congress, once two essential intervening steps are taken: Conclusion of a safeguards agreement between India and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and an acceptance of the deal by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), many of whose 45 members have already declared their keenness for nuclear commerce with India.

The Singh government has been all set for quite a while to finalize the agreement with the IAEA, while Washington has been more than willing to act as "India's shepherd" at the NSG, as US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Nicholas Burns put it way back in August 2007. But the left has threatened to pull the rug from under Singh's feet and withdraw support to his government the moment New Delhi takes up India-specific safeguards with the IAEA.

The only concrete response of the UPA and the government has been to suggest that they will enlist a regional political force, the Samajwadi (Socialist) Party with 39 members in the Lok Sabha, as a replacement for the left among outside allies.

The government is keen to find a way out of the impasse before July 7, when Singh is scheduled to attend a Group of Eight (G8) summit in Tokyo. The prime minister and the government, argue their apologists, will suffer a "loss of face" if Singh cannot sound confident about the deal on the sidelines of the summit.

India can only wait and watch the the future of a deal that, if and when done, can spell the loss of far more than face for its people.


A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. Sri Raman is the author of "Flashpoint" (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.

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