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J. Sri Raman: The Issue India Won't Vote On

The Issue India Won't Vote On

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

Just nine months ago, the issue threatened to defeat (and thus dislodge) India's government in its Parliament. The question of the US-India nuclear deal, however, is conspicuously absent from the otherwise loud and heated campaign of the main opposition for the nation's parliamentary elections less than a month away.

The far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which officially led the parliamentary offensive in July 2008, has dropped its opposition to the deal for all practical purposes. Jaswant Singh, former minister of external affairs and now leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha (the Upper House of India's Parliament), minced no words on the subject while talking to the media in Singapore on March 22. There will be "no rewinding" of the deal, he declared, if the BJP returned to power following the general elections.

"An era of rescinding [inter-state] agreements," in the event of changes of governments, would only "add to the chaos that the world already has," he added. There might be "deficiencies with details." he conceded, but "we will endeavor to rectify these over time."

The consideration about any chaotic outcome did not prevent the party until the above date from promising a "renegotiation" of the deal that would amount to its radical revision. Demanding such a "renegotiation" after the release of the bilateral "123 agreement" (named after the provision in the US Constitution covering such pacts) in August 2008, the BJP left no doubt that this meant a rejection of the deal. The party ruled out any "meeting ground" with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government.

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The party was not talking of some "deficiencies with details," but wanted the deal to be totally rejected or recast. It argued that the agreement "compromises long-term strategic programs of India, vital for the country's security," and would also not help meet the country's energy needs. It charged that the pact would "cap" India's "strategic" nuclear program and curb its freedom to conduct nuclear-weapon tests.

The BJP, however, took pains to stress repeatedly that it was not opposed to US-India "strategic partnership." Indeed, it could not be as it was the party-led government of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee that had initiated the partnership. The declaration made the party's opposition to the deal more than a little doubtful right from the outset.

Jaswant Singh's latest statement of the subject lends added credence to the theory that the party was indulging in parliamentary shadow boxing last July. Cross-voting by some of its members in the House helped the government carry the day then. The George Bush administration seemed to have secured bipartisan support for the deal in India as well as in the US.

Even after the government's success in surviving over the issue, the BJP kept up a semblance of strong opposition to the deal. In September 2008, the party said, "The future of this deal should not be decided by a President in the US who will not be returned to office and a Prime Minister in India who may not be returned to office. The deal should be left to be renegotiated by future governments in both countries."

The party has now dropped the pretense. On the eve of the elections, it has found it politic to put all promoters of the deal at ease about the prospect, however dim, of its return to power.

There was nothing dove-like about the defenders of the deal either. They were for it because, in their view, nothing would really carry India's strategic nuclear program further. The agreement, after all, allowed New Delhi to keep eight out of the country's 22 nuclear facilities beyond the purview of inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). By allowing India to import nuclear fuel, the deal also freed up India's own uranium reserves for use in its weapons program.

A certain defensiveness, however, can now be detected in the pro-deal camp. After the famous victory of last July, there was much talk of the Congress party, heading the Manmohan coalition, making the deal an election campaign issue. Nothing of that sort is happening, and not only that, the BJP may have dropped its renegotiation demand, but the pro-deal camp is displaying reservations and even anxiety about the future of the agreement under the new US administration.

Defenders of the deal have not concealed its serious concern over the appointment of Ellen O. Tauscher as the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security by the Barack Obama administration. Tauscher made a mark as a Democrat in Congress by opposing the Bush regime's determined efforts to push the deal through. She moved an amendment to make a cut in India's fissile material production as a precondition for the pact.

After India won a waiver of the Nuclear Suppliers Group's conditions for nuclear trade with India, she deplored it as a "dark day for global efforts to halt the spread of weapons of mass destruction." She said the deal would made it harder to "curb the South Asian nuclear arms race."

Worries over the deal have gotten worse with New Delhi and its security think-tanks perceiving significant changes in Washington's idea of a strategic partnership under Obama. The new administration's Pakistan-Afghanistan policy is making them nervous indeed. They have taken particular umbrage at Washington suggesting efforts by New Delhi towards a dialogue with Pakistan on the Kashmir issue. Even "outrage" in the external affairs establishment has been reported in the officially briefed media over a US suggestion for demilitarization of India's side of the international border in Kashmir. The proposal, aimed at persuading Islamabad to focus on its border with Afghanistan, a sanctuary of al-Qaeda, is being presented almost as a provocation to India.

Nostalgia for the Bush era accompanies the nervousness. The Tauscher appointment has made some of the mandarins turn wistfully by to days when the "non-proliferation people were usually overruled" in Washington. Dwelling on the pressure for an India-Pakistan dialogue, security analyst Harsh V. Pant writes: "(The two countries) were close to a deal on Kashmir in 2007 not because of any outside pressure but because India was confident of the support of the friendlier Bush administration."

The people of India may be less misty-eyed about that past and "partnership." But the victory of bipartisanship over the deal will deny the voters an opportunity to pronounce their verdict on it. A post-election struggle awaits the nation's small but significant movement for peace and against nuclear militarism.


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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