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It’s now or never

In principle the government remains committed to carrying the Indo-US nuclear deal through, writes Prem Shankar Jha.

india Updated: Oct 09, 2007 02:38 IST
Prem Shankar Jha

October 5 has come and gone. D-day is now October 9. So the war of nerves drags on. In principle the government remains committed to carrying the Indo-US nuclear deal through. In practice it has been giving ground, inch by surreptitious inch, to the Left. First there was its agreement to set up a joint committee to oversee its implementation. Then there was its tacit decision not to enter into negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) till October. Then there was its hasty and emphatic denial, through Anil Kakodkar, that talks with the IAEA had started. Now nine days of October have been allowed to slip by and the negotiations with the IAEA continue to hang fire. All that is needed to scuttle the deal is another two to three weeks of procrastination. After that, by the time the government hammers out the safeguards agreement with the IAEA, the US will be in the grip of election fever, and George Bush will have run out of time.

The portents are not reassuring. Pranab Mukherjee said a few days ago that “relations with the US will not end if the nuclear deal does not go through”. Is this the government’s way of preparing the country for a withdrawal? One’s misgivings are strengthened by a statement by Debabrata Biswas of the Forward Bloc, who said after the last postponement, “We still have the impression that the government will not go ahead with the IAEA process till the UPA-Left Committee finalises its findings.” The competitive escalation of threats to the UPA of late by members of the CPI(M) politburo also suggests that they are scenting victory and positioning themselves to claim the lion’s share of the credit for having scuttled the agreement.

I may be wrong to fear the worst. But the resemblance between the government’s procrastination, and the way it dithered for two years over the Kashmir peace process behind a veil of opaque silence, till the rising chaos in Pakistan shut the door on a historic opportunity, is too strong to ignore. If my fears turn out to be well-founded then, far from saving itself, this government will have committed suicide.

The Congress is the one party that should not need to be reminded that the people don’t vote governments into power to do nothing. In 1955 and 1956, it had passed the Hindu Marriage Act, the Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act, and the Hindu Succession Act. These cut through a two millennia-old customary law like a combine harvester. But in the 1957 polls the Congress got 47.8 per cent of the vote, the highest it has ever obtained in a non-crisis election.

It happened again in 1969: Indira Gandhi broke the Congress, raised the slogan of ‘Garibi Hatao’ and, in the next two years, passed a spate of populist economic laws that were to set the Indian economy back by two whole decades. But in the 400-plus constituencies that her Congress(I) fought in 1971, it received more than half of the votes, and pushed the parent Congress party into oblivion.

This government has nothing even remotely comparable to its credit. Apart from safeguarding an industrial recovery that began in AB Vajpayee’s time, it has actually achieved very little. This has not been for the want of initiatives, but that of follow through. As a result, after enjoying the longest ‘honeymoon period’ of any Indian government in recent history, the UPA has been facing growing anti-incumbent sentiment in the past 16 months. If, after two years of very public diplomacy, the government now allows an already signed deal to fall through, it will become an object of derision in peoples’ eyes. And no one votes for a person or party that he cannot respect. But the harm that the Congress will do to itself if its nerve fails will be nothing compared to the body blow it will deliver to the future of India and its 1.1 billion people.

The most important change it will make is to give India the de facto status of a sixth recognised nuclear weapons power. Conservative and hyper-nationalist opponents of the deal have been highlighting all the ways in which India will still not be equated with the P5. But none of them has been able to claim that it will not amount to a legal recognition of India’s right, earned through four decades of exemplary conduct, to make and deploy nuclear weapons, and keep its military installations beyond the purview of the IAEA’s safeguards.

The gains for India will not be merely symbolic. The completion of the deal will open the doors for the supply of nuclear power generating equipment and enriched uranium to India. Without a massive switch to nuclear power generation, India’s growth will stall. To sustain an 8 per cent growth rate it must increase the availability of electrical energy by at least 7 per cent a year. This means that by 2027, its power-generating capacity must rise from the present 137,000 MW to 640,000 MW. Only 50,000 MW of this can come from hydel power. If we try to generate the rest from coal, we will turn our skies black as the Chinese have done. And, we will also start to run out of coal.

Equally, if not more, important in the long run is the need to lift the embargo on so-called ‘dual use’ technology, imposed by the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG). The harm this is doing is considerable; the harm it will do in the future could be catastrophic. For technology is not static. Thus, if there were only a handful of dual-use technologies in the 1970s, when the embargo was conceived, there is a wide swathe of such technologies today. The embargo, therefore, threatens India with incremental obsolescence.

Perhaps the most important change the deal will make is in the status of India. The US is willing to change its own laws, and the larger nations in the NSG have come around to supporting the lifting of the embargo, not out of altruism, or because they want to reward India for being a ‘good boy’. They are willing to do this because they want India to shoulder some of the responsibility for restoring order in a world that has been thrown into chaos by globalisation, the end of the Cold War, the rise of terrorism and the destruction of the basic tenets of the Westphalian State system that occurred five years ago.

India is being invited to sit at the global high table, not to serve as a lackey of the US, but to add a voice that is missing from the discussion that of a large, militarily powerful, economically successful, but still fairly poor democracy, that can articulate a different viewpoint on international developments and serve as a bridge between the North and the South.

This realisation is changing traditionally held foreign policy positions of the Indian government. The Left’s accusation that it is becoming a lackey of the US, when Washington itself has conceded, tacitly, that it has lost its way, reflects the Left’s deep-rooted lack of confidence in the nation and therefore, in itself.