Let the course correction begin

Ruling elites celebrate

The announcement in the third week of July of a breakthrough in the last round of negotiations over the Indo-US agreement for civilian nuclear cooperation has dispelled the uncertainty that has attended the fate of the accords since the passage in December 2006 of the Hyde Act that placed stringent conditions on the nature of the nuclear cooperation that would be legally permissible under US law.  On the Indian side, hitherto skeptical nuclear scientists have declared their satisfaction with the provisions of the 123 agreement, the bilateral treaty that grants signatories exemption from the provisions of the US Atomic Energy Act of 1954.  Nothing it appears stands in the way of the dismantling of the technology and fuel denial that have hampered India’s nuclear industry ever since nuclear tests were conducted in 1974.  Ahead stretches a brave new world of nuclear energy generation and relief from chronic power shortages that plague urban and rural India crippling industrial and agricultural productivity and discouraging foreign investment.  Votaries of the so-called India-US strategic partnership have stepped forth to hail the successful conclusion of the nuclear agreement.  The business advocacy group the United States India Business Council (USIBC) has rejoiced at the progress that has been made on the bilateral 123 agreement.  In an opinion piece that ran in the Times of India at the end of July, an influential member of the Indo-US strategic community has called for an end to cold war era tensions between India and the United States and the consummation of the nuclear agreement without further ado. [1]  Addressed to decision-makers in Delhi and aptly entitled "Let a new chapter begin," the article makes no bones over prescribing the steps they must take to cement the "vital" relationship between India and the US.

Responding to the critics

The 123 agreement that was finally hammered out after months of stalled talks appears to have taken care of the major concerns that existed on the Indian side and may be regarded as a triumph of Indian negotiating acumen.  Still in marked contrast to the applause from the cheerleaders of  India-US strategic cooperation, statements issued by Indian officials have been somewhat muted.  After all, ever since the announcement of the Manmohan Singh-Bush agreement, anti-nuclear activists and disarmament experts have been articulating compelling reasons for questioning the Indo-US nuclear pact.  It has been contended that the nuclear accords will undermine prospects for global treaties on nuclear restraint and disarmament.  It is also feared that the deal will trigger a nuclear arms race in Asia.  Hence the defensive disclaimer by National Security Adviser M.K.Narayanan of the intention of using the agreement to enhance India’s strategic capabilities.

Embedding the nuclear deal in wide-ranging strategic cooperation

Presumably the need to justify the increasing closeness with the US to a domestic constituency is also costing policy makers in Delhi some sleepless nights.  The overly ebullient "Let a new chapter begin" article has called on them to think beyond the nuclear deal to expand the ambit of India-US cooperation.  In this instance, as it happens, the implementation has preceded the recommendation.  The so-called expanded "cooperation" has already been initiated and has not been accorded an enthusiastic reception except by India’s ruling classes consisting—along with other groups–of such elite circles as the Confederation of Indian Industry and the associated upper crust of Indian society, the gilded and the glittering, who have in Arundhati Roy’s eloquent formulation effectively seceded from the rest of India.  The inking of the Manmohan Singh-Bush civil nuclear cooperation agreement in July 2005 took place in the immediate wake of the signing of the New Framework for US-India Defense Cooperation by then External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee.  The India visit by President Bush in March 2006 witnessed the signing of a slew of agreements on a broad range of issues encompassing science and technology, trade and agriculture.  The implications of such expanded interaction have been studied in some detail in the pages of the Economic and Political Weekly.  In a meticulously argued essay that appeared soon after the Bush visit to India, the scientist T. Jayaraman examined the political, economic, military and technological dimensions of India-US "co-operation." [2.] Along with other categories of data, the scientist has highlighted the demand in the US-India CEO Forum report for a rollback in price controls of items on the essential drugs list.  Given the potentially devastating nature of such a policy transformation, it is impossible not to conclude with T. Jayaraman that the price of the deal, in terms of US expectations for strategic compromises across the board over a broad spectrum of sectors, is far too high for India to pay. 

"I don’t think the country is yet willing to recognize the U.S. is a benign power"

At present an upward spiral in the pricing of essential drugs may constitute no more than a specter in the nightmares of working class India.  Or an anticipatory gleam in the eye of a Novartis or Eli Lilly CEO.  The consequences of intensified defense cooperation between India and the US on the other hand have already come home to roost. As  substantial protests by workers, intellectuals and Left Parties at the recent docking in the Chennai harbor of the aircraft carrier, the USS Nimitz showed, the response from sections of both the government and the public has not been supportive of official Indian policy.    Despite efforts on the part of high-placed naval officers and the Prime Minister himself to play down the implications of the warship’s presence in Indian territorial waters, Indians in significant numbers have perceived the USS Nimitz as a symbol of the remorseless US death machine, launching illegal and unprovoked war, laying nations waste and condemning their peoples to the horrors of life under occupation.  The disclaimers from all the Prime Minister’s men were woefully inadequate to masking the real purpose of  USS Nimitz’s presence in Asian waters—to menace the Persian Gulf with its deadly cargo until word is given to let slip the dogs of war on Iran. Efforts by advocates of the India-US strategic partnership to make light of the difference between US and Indian positions on Iraq succeed only in trivializing the devastation visited on the West Asian state by the United States.  Such heartless, morally repugnant discourse will accomplish little by way of reconciling the politically informed sections of the Indian public to the impending embedding of the Indian military with the murderous American war machine.  Little wonder that the syntax of National Security Advisor M.K.Narayanan became extraordinarily convoluted– "I don’t think the country is yet willing to recognize the U.S. is a benign power"–when he was asked first if India should be willing to play in the future the role of a Britain in Asia and then more bluntly if the US military had been granted access to Indian bases as quid pro quo for civilian nuclear cooperation.[3]

Re-instituting the unipolar world

Within sections of the Indian and NRI (non-resident Indian) strategic community, there is a tendency to use the belittling term third worldism to denigrate those who oppose the foreign policy of the United States and to represent them as victims of nostalgia for an era when India represented the cause of the developing countries.  It is possible though that these experts are victims of nostalgia of a different kind, in their case for the unipolar world of unquestioned US supremacy which was memorably described  in the National Security Strategy document of 2002.  By serving as advocates for India’s gravitation into the US orbit and concomitant harnessing of India’s military strengths for fulfilling the strategic goals of the US, the adherents of the India-US partnership can be seen as—intentionally or otherwise–perpetuating the unchallenged supremacy enjoyed by the US prior to the invasion of Iraq.  The post invasion of Iraq redrawing of global military blocs, specifically the resurgence of Russia as a global power and the ever increasing economic and military clout of China, has created the potential for a re-institution of the multipolar world.   Thanks to the India-US partnership created by the collusion of Indian and US ruling classes, there exists the real danger at this time that India’s transformation into a US proxy will destroy an incipient global security architecture in which the overwhelming dominance of the US is subject to constraints arising from the need to accommodate the disparate interests of independent powers that cannot be bribed, bullied or bombed into submission.

Democracy’s inconveniences

The elites who have been pushing the India-US strategic partnership are fond of dwelling on the fact that India and the United States are the largest democracies in the world.  They are given to repeating the refrain that shared democratic values make for a natural affinity between the two countries.  And of course the claims of upholding shared democratic traditions are unaccompanied by even minimal recognition of the structural flaws in Indian and US political systems.  Among diasporic Indians of North America, in particular, the strength of India’s democratic institutions constitutes grounds for self-congratulatory chest thumping.  But democracy can work in inconvenient ways.  The people at large do not necessarily support the interests of the ruling classes.  The ordinary Indian has everything to lose from the economic and military dimensions of the intensifying India-US strategic partnership ranging from the penetration of American business interests and neo-liberal economic policies into the Indian economy to the escalation to obscene levels of spending on US origin military hardware.  The humble Indian voter is given to the unpleasant habit of voting out administrations that are oblivious to the interests of the common man and focus instead on serving the elites.  Due no doubt to some innate perversity, the ordinary Indian is insensitive to the interests of the millionaires and the billionaires.  At this point, a little over three years into its 5 year term in office, the Congress led UPA government would do well to be mindful of the consequences of giving undue attention to the agenda of US and Indian elites. 

Ringing the alarm bell

The warning bell has already been sounded in an unmistakable way not by some wild-eyed, gun-toting Maoist revolutionary but from within the government.  And this particular critique was not made by the Left Parties, a constituent of the ruling UPA, who have all along taken issue with the Manmohan Singh government’s neoliberal economic policies and accommodation of the strategic interests of the US.  The critique in question came from the dynamic and visionary statesman and longtime Congress loyalist, Mani Shankar Aiyar, Union Minister of Panchayati Raj and former Petroleum Minister.  In a remarkable interview that he gave the CNN-IBN program "Devil’s Advocate," on the occasion of the UPA government’s completion of three years in office, Mani Shankar Aiyar addressed the contradiction between the demands of growth and the demands of equity and roundly advocated (the horror, the horror!) giving priority to the latter:  If we are framing an economic policy for a democratic polity, as we have to, then we must resist the tendency to look at the interest of the classes and instead take into account the interest of the masses. [4] The Union Minister claimed that his views had received a sympathetic hearing from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, author of the neo-liberal economic reforms that were initiated in 1991 and expressed optimism regarding prospects for a course correction on the part of the government.  But Mani Shankar Aiyar’s words positively reek of old-fashioned socialism.  Will Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Planning Commission Chairman, Montek Ahluwalia, known for his friendliness to corporate interests, in fact act on the advice of the Union Minister?  Will they not be repelled by the unmistakable scent of views inherited from Nehruvian, anti-colonial times?   And will a reversal of the domestic and foreign policy priorities of the UPA government come to pass?  Alas for the defense contractors and the merchants of death, the Lockheed Martins and the Raytheons if that evil day were to dawn.  Alas too for the shattered hopes of the profit-crazed–Big Pharma, Wal-Mart, Cargill and other agribusinesses.  Elites, Indian as well as American, should brace themselves for a rude shock if the recommended course correction ever comes.  So too the cheerleaders of India-US strategic cooperation.

1. Times of India

2. "Price of the Nuclear Deal," T.Jayaraman. Economic and Political Weekly. Vol 41 No. 15 April 15 – April 21, 2006
3. http://www.hindu.com/2007/07/30/stories/2007073053941100.htm
4. http://www.hindu.com/2007/05/21/stories/2007052105521200.htm



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