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Monkey business

The nuclear deal could be about electricity and energy. But as of now, it’s about politics and more politics, writes Amit Baruah.

india Updated: Dec 06, 2007 00:44 IST
Amit Baruah

In the rough and tumble of politics, clarity is often elusive. The much-written about civilian nuclear initiative between India and the United States is a classic case in point. At the end of the day, the July 2005 deal could be about electricity and energy. But as of now, it’s about politics and more politics.

Only a few weeks ago, the nuclear deal looked very dead. No signs of half-life either. At a meeting with the Congress leadership, the Left made it clear that if India approached the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for talks on a safeguards agreement, they would bring the government down. The message hit home. The Congress and the UPA leadership decided that between government and the nuclear deal, they would prefer government. (In any case, without the government, there can be no deal.) And then came the many meetings of a joint committee set up between the UPA and the Left, which many felt was an exercise of buying time to paper over the gaping cracks that had developed in the ruling coalition on account of the civilian nuclear deal.

After all the anti-deal rhetoric, a somewhat surprising statement was issued on November 16: “...it was decided that impact of the provisions of the Hyde Act and the 123 agreement on the IAEA safeguards agreement should also be examined. This will require talks with the IAEA secretariat for working out the text of the India-specific safeguards agreement. The government will proceed with the talks and the outcome will be presented to the committee for its consideration before it finalises its findings.” The ‘dead’ deal had again spluttered to life. Showing how keen it was over the deal, the government then rushed its top nuclear brass from the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) to Vienna for talks with the IAEA on an India-specific safeguards agreement.

It was evident that the Left had relented, changed its stand to allow the government to approach the IAEA without bringing down the government. Undoubtedly, there had been a softening of the Left’s stand to allow the talks with the IAEA. (I am not one of those who believe that the change is a result of Nandigram.) As the Left explained, it had given “limited consent” to the government to begin talks with the IAEA on a safeguards agreement. This was no blank cheque; it was an authorisation to begin the talks and come back with the results to the UPA-Left Committee. But it was a change. At the same time, the Left leadership — Prakash Karat and A.B. Bardhan — continue to hold the ‘veto’. The deal can be pushed ahead only if they give the green signal.

A stand-alone nuclear deal is good for India. It’s the best the world can offer the country at this stage. Nobody is going to bend over backwards to accommodate India in the world nuclear order purely on our own terms. The rest of the world, too, wants to extract its bit from India. The time to do the deal is now; there’s no telling how international positions on the nuclear deal might change in the future. The initiative is good for India and there’s little time to waste.

If the Left raises the red flag on the content of an India-specific safeguards agreement and judges that it’s not in keeping with its worldview, then it will have to bear the responsibility for derailing the deal. If, and when, the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) lifts restrictions on nuclear commerce with India, New Delhi can buy reactors and source fuel from Russia, France, Germany, Switzerland, Japan, etc.

We don’t necessarily have to buy American. India doesn’t have to worry about a Hyde Act or a 123 agreement when it signs a deal for new reactors, say with the French or the Russians. The nuclear deal with the US is an opening after decades of isolation, not an end in itself. Just as the Left views the nuclear deal in a strategic context, where the Manmohan Singh government’s embrace with the US is becoming tighter, there is a context to the foreign policy equation, or the lack of it, between the government and the Left.

A deep schism between the government and the Left developed on September 24, 2005, when India chose to vote with the US and the rest of the West at the IAEA board meeting in Vienna. The Left did not expect such a vote, despite clear indications that the government had decided in advance that, if push came to shove, it would vote against Iran.

CPI(M) General Secretary Prakash Karat, writing in People’s Democracy on October 2, 2005, noted: “The UPA government has taken a major step which adversely affects India’s independent foreign policy and its status in the non-alignment movement. The Prime Minister is directly responsible for this state of affairs. The CPI(M) and the Left parties cannot countenance this new direction of foreign policy.” (Original emphasis)

The Left, it appeared, felt let down by the government’s vote. After all, their members were keeping the UPA government going. After launching a public campaign against the vote, it became clear that Manmohan Singh and Prakash Karat were on two different sides of the foreign policy divide. Clearly, there was little dialogue on matters of substance between the Congress and the Left, the former quite confident that the allies-from-outside would not want to pull the plug on the government. It had all the makings of a crisis-in-the-works.

In the short-term, the Congress calculation proved correct. The Left would not rock the boat, but it struck when the opportunity arose. Whether it was opposing the original Congress nominee for the post of President or halting the nuclear deal in its tracks, the Left showed its teeth. It’s also a fact that the Left has been played along on the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline. Whatever be the excuses cited, price or security, the government has very little intention in pursuing a project that could bring tangible, immediate energy gains to India. In fact, the real challenge for Indian diplomacy would be to do both: the nuclear deal with the Americans and the gas deal with the Iranians. Both are in India’s interests; both will advance the country’s energy security.

Writing in the article, ‘Changing India’, in Foreign Affairs (April 1963), Jawaharlal Nehru had said that India’s foreign policy was based on a desire to judge issues for itself, “in full freedom and without any preconceived partisan bias”...“It implied basically a conviction that good and evil are mixed up in this world, that the nations cannot be divided into sheep and goats, to be condemned or approved accordingly… essentially ‘non-alignment’ is freedom of action which is part of independence.”

Whether it is the nuclear deal or the pipeline project, the Left and the Congress would do the people of India a favour if they judged issues on merit — in full freedom and without any preconceived bias.