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The Nuclear Fundamentalists

It is not surprising that the principal players on the Indo-US nuclear deal have maintained a studied silence, writes Vir Sanghvi.
Hindustan Times | By Counterpoint | Vir Sanghvi
UPDATED ON OCT 21, 2007 01:43 PM IST

Two interesting things have happened in the aftermath of last week’s developments on the Indo-US nuclear deal. It is not surprising that the principal players have maintained a studied silence. The Prime Minister spoke the language of consensus at the HT Summit and then flew off to Africa where he’s done no more than obliquely refer to the stand he took at the Summit. Sonia Gandhi agreed enthusiastically with Manmohan Singh’s revised position but then withdrew from the discourse and went off to Rae Bareli to address her constituents.

The CPM, which might have been expected to gloat a little, has been as quiet. The press has interpreted the government’s climbdown as a victory for Prakash Karat but the man himself has done no gloating at all. Sitaram Yechury, expected at the HT Summit, missed the first session, saw the Prime Minister talk about the deal on the live telecast and decided to stay away on the grounds that he would be expected to comment on the issue, if not on the floor of the Summit, then to the massed TV crews.

No, the interesting thing has not been the response of the principal players in this drama. They have been responsible and restrained — almost to the point of boredom.

What fascinates me is the response of two other groups, both of whom have made themselves self-appointed spokesmen for the two opposing extreme positions in the deal.

The first is what might be called the Inconsequential Left. It is a basic truth of journalism in Delhi that if you want to find out how the Left will react to national political developments, you gauge the mood of the CPM Politburo. You can argue about the primacy of the party’s central leadership (“most of these guys have never even fought a municipal election”; they are “jumped-up student leaders who never grew up” etc etc), but if this crisis has proved anything it is that Karat and his cohorts (and not state chief ministers) call the shots in the Left.

As Karat does not make for good copy and rarely departs from a position once he’s taken it (just ask Manmohan Singh), journos need to find what we call “dial-a-quote commies”. Top of the heap is Gurudas Dasgupta. No matter what the issue is, thick black smoke will promptly billow out of his ears and he will do his demagogue-of-the-proletariat routine for the thousandth time.

If Dasgupta is not available, then we fall back on what might be called the Lesser Left. Some hapless Forward Bloc person whom nobody has heard of will be dragged in front of the cameras and he will obligingly say something controversial and newsworthy in a cheerfully impenetrable Bengali accent.

The interesting thing about the debate on the nuclear deal is that the CPI, a party of no great electoral consequence and whose opinions are almost entirely irrelevant to the CPM Politburo’s policy-making and thus to Indian politics in general, has joined the ranks of the “dial-a-quote commies”.

There are few Indian politicians I admire as much as AB Bardhan. He represents all that is desirable about the old Left: great personal warmth, a keen intelligence, genuine stature and an integrity that is beyond reproach.

But equally, there’s no denying that he’s turned this crisis into a personal cottage industry. Each time a coordination committee meeting ends, it is Bardhan that the journos rush to, confident that he will spill the beans. Each time there’s a dull news day, he’s ready with a provocative sound bite. And nearly every semi-informed piece on the troubles of the coalition can be traced back — through the old six degrees of separation rule — to Bardhan.

Why this admirable and intelligent man should suddenly decide at this late stage in his career that he wants to be a TV star is not clear. Nor do I understand why his colleague D Raja is so eager to play the same role. They are both nice, decent people whom I like, but sadly they are now in danger of becoming the Mahesh and Pooja Bhatt of political journalism.

There’s been so much Left-bashing in the media of late (see above!) that I fear we’ve missed another interesting sideshow. And that’s the emergence of a new entity: the Nuclear Fundamentalist.

There are now so many Nuclear Fundamentalists in Delhi — in the media, in the think-tanks, in the chambers of commerce and, yes, at least one each in the PMO and the Cabinet — that if I were on Prakash Karat’s side in this debate (which, clearly, I am not), I would begin to wonder how many American stooges flourish in the centre of the Delhi establishment.

It is the Nuclear Fundamentalists who have steered the debate to an extreme and untenable position. This position is as follows: there is nothing more important for India than a nuclear deal that draws us closer to Washington. This deal is so crucial that it is worth sacrificing everything for it: prosperity, stability and governance. If the deal does not go through, the government should commit ritual hara kiri, the Prime Minister should slash his wrists in front of a live audience at India Gate and the Congress party should lie prostrate on the floor apologising to Washington and “the international community”.

I do not claim to understand the nuances of the deal (how many of us do?) but remain an enthusiastic supporter largely because of my conviction that Manmohan Singh is a) patriotic enough to protect India’s interests and b) bright enough to understand how the deal will benefit our country. I suspect that this is also the view of the majority of educated Indians.

But I do not believe that India’s future depends solely on the deal. I do not see why it is a make-or-break issue for us. And I cannot understand the hysteria generated by supporters of the deal.

Plus, there’s also the little problem of democracy. The Nuclear Fundamentalists tell us that this deal will transform India for generations. If this is true, then clearly it is a long-term policy measure which will commit succeeding governments. In that case, isn’t it necessary to build some kind of consensus around it — at least in Parliament?

But here are the facts. If the deal was put to vote, it would be defeated. The BJP would vote against it. So would the Left. So would the Samajwadis. And so, I suspect, would some of the UPA allies.

So what gives the Nuclear Fundamentalists the right to commit India for generations through a deal that is opposed by two-thirds of Parliament?

You could argue, as the Nuclear Fundamentalists have, that MPs are not voting on the issue but only out of a desire to avoid an early election. Fair enough. But assume now that Manmohan Singh had said, “Look, this deal is so important that if I can’t pass it, my government will resign” and new elections were held.

In every possible outcome, these elections would have thrown up a government that could not have passed the deal. The Congress would have needed Mayawati (opposed to the deal) or the Left again if it had come back. The Third Front would have needed the Left. And the BJP has already called the deal a sell-out (for whatever reason).

Hence, the chosen path of the Nuclear Fundamentalists: they wanted Manmohan Singh to announce that he would go ahead with the deal. The Left would have withdrawn support. The Congress would have had to sign the deal as a minority government and then, elections would have been called.

This was the only way in which the deal could have been passed. So, pause a while, and ask yourselves this: what’s more important to India — the deal or democracy? Is it ever right, in any democratic country, for a government that has lost the confidence of Parliament to sign a deal with a foreign power that will be binding on India for decades?

And yet, this is exactly what the Nuclear Fundamentalists wanted. And this is why they are now claiming that Manmohan Singh has lost all legitimacy — only because he finally stopped listening to them and had the good sense to work for a consensus instead.

We’ve all spent a long time questioning the motives of the Left. But what about the motives of the Nuclear Fundamentalists? Why were they so desperate that the government signed the deal with Washington even if the government had no mandate to do so and even if the consequences were the dissolution of Parliament, fresh elections and years of possible instability?

It’s worth thinking about, isn’t it?

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