Nuclear Deal and the Subversion of Democracy

The India-US agreement for civilian nuclear cooperation is now a done deal. Over a period of less than three months the nuclear deal proponents, supporters and fanatics have scored an unbroken succession of victories—the trust vote in the Indian Parliament (July 21-22), the vote in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) granting India an exemption from the NSG’s export regulations (September 6), and finally Congressional ratification of the agreement and the signing of the bill into law by President Bush (October 8). Each of these events, especially the last, has generated the predictable round of celebrations among the nuclear deal’s prime movers on the Indian and American side as well as lobbyists, state functionaries, facilitators and backers. Tired clichés about the history making nature of the deal have been trotted out and repeated ad nauseum. US-based NRI (non-resident Indian) lobbying groups whose political clout has been on display through the various stages of the deal’s progress have hailed the nuclear agreement’s "successful" culmination by proclaiming their loyalty and pride in their Indian-American national affiliations and expressing their hopes for a future in which India and the US will bestride the global stage as close-knit allies.

NRI gloating over the nuclear deal has been echoed by some (highly publicized) sections of the Indian public as well as several of India’s leading English language newspapers. NRI lobbying on behalf of the deal was undeterred by the release in September—as the deal raced toward the finish line–of a procession of Bush Administration statements that highlighted the existing gulf between Indian and US interpretations of the 123 agreement, the bilateral document that was reached by negotiators on both sides after months of wrangling over the precise wording of such issues as penalties that would go into effect if India were to conduct a nuclear test. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is apparently completely unfazed by a steady stream of official declarations that have resulted in concerns being aroused in India about bad faith negotiations on the US side. The Bush Administration statements have caused even the ardently pro-nuclear deal Times of India to wonder whether Bush misled India. Cumulatively, these statements have undermined the solemn assurances that the Prime Minister gave the Indian Parliament on such contentious issues as securing uninterrupted fuel supplies as well as reprocessing rights for spent fuel. The historical Prime Ministerial sulks of June 2008 which led to Dr Manmohan Singh’s breaking faith with the Left Parties, his former coalition allies, and precipitating the events leading to the operationalization of the India-US nuclear cooperation deal were subsequently succeeded by Prime Ministerial imperturbability in the face of mounting evidence that the American side was determined to disregard the Indian point of view and enforce the US understanding of the bilateral 123 document. Taking their cue from the Prime Minister, the External Affairs Ministry and principal nuclear negotiators responded by asserting that India is bound only by the 123 agreement and that the India-specific Hyde Act of 2006 which imposes stringent restrictions on nuclear cooperation is irrelevant to dealings between India and the US. They have persisted in iterating this face-saving fiction even though the US has repeatedly declared that the bilateral 123 agreement must conform to the stipulations of the Hyde Act.

The NRI lobbyist has chosen to turn a blind eye to the holes that have appeared in the bilateral agreement. For the most part perceptions of the nuclear deal among homegrown Indians—including some in official circles–have been far more nuanced than that of the NRI. Even as the India-US nuclear agreement maintained its forward momentum in September, rumblings of discontent were heard in the Ministry of External Affairs among officials who were unable to emulate the Prime Minister’s insouciance or that of the NRI lobbyist. Their reservations stemmed from a Presidential declaration which downgraded the legal status of the bilateral 123 document by calling it a framework agreement. Revelations of the hardening of the American stance on the bilateral agreement followed on the heels of a blunt State Department letter which clarified that the US would cease its cooperation if India were to conduct a nuclear test. The Presidential statement also called into question what was once hailed as a major triumph of Indian diplomacy, namely securing US guarantees of uninterrupted fuel supply for imported, civilian-use reactors. Hitherto the calculated ambiguities in the 123 document had provided the Indian side with the basis for believing that the bilateral agreement contained built-in assurance of American support for obtaining nuclear fuel from other NSG vendors even if the US were to break off cooperation. When this assumption was undermined, India announced but did not follow through on its intention of seeking a clarification from the Bush Administration. And since the monsoon session of Parliament was frozen in July—not to be re-convened until October 17—the Prime Minister has conveniently avoided having to take Parliament into his confidence or being taken to task on the issue of facing up to the Bush Administration. Late in September, the Manmohan Singh government’s intention of purchasing US reactors capable of generating 10,000 MW of nuclear energy became known. The Indian public—the party most concerned in such purchases—learned about this upcoming bonanza for the US nuclear industry when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was informed by Nicholas Burns, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, of the contents of the letter of intent provided by the Indian government. In vain have sober analysts pointed out the folly of making a commitment of this magnitude given the risks inherent in the absence of fuel supply guarantees for the lifetime of US provided reactors and the technological superiority of French and Russian manufacturers.

The international critique of the nuclear deal has been conducted by activist groups and political thinkers whose primary concerns have to do with arms control, nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament. As a result not much scrutiny has been given—at the global level–to the undermining of democratic norms and procedures on the Indian side for the purpose of bringing off the deal with the United States. That Indian democracy is one of the principal casualties of the deal has been obscured amid the gloating, on the one hand, by Indian elites and US based NRIs over the attainment of nuclear nirvana and, on the other hand, the dismay felt across the world over the undermining of the nuclear nonproliferation regime at the behest of the US. The nuclear deal with America has encountered a range of opposition in India from responsible political formations and civil society and has been critiqued by scientists, strategic thinkers, intellectuals and observers. Misgivings over the nuclear compact have been present at every stage of the deal’s progress and these became particularly evident as the (at the time) stalled deal picked up momentum back in July. The parliamentary Left’s disagreement with the policies of the Manmohan Singh regime is well known because as a constituent of the ruling coalition the Left was placed in the media spotlight. Concomitantly the Left became the target of every form of excoriation including the vilest aspersions merely on account of its principled questioning of the India-US strategic partnership and the nuclear deal in particular. The parliamentary Left however is not alone in its distrust of the nuclear bargain. Many Indian scientists and analysts have questioned the wisdom of making the country’s energy security dependent on imported technology. Prior to the Prime Minister’s engineered victory in the trust vote of July 21-22, a public call was issued to desist from rushing headlong into the nuclear deal, and an appeal was made for a debate on the role of nuclear energy in the national energy security policy. The statement was signed by academics from India’s premier institutions of higher learning, the well-known Right to Information activist Aruna Roy, former officials of the Atomic Energy Commission and other distinguished individuals. In September, even as plans were in the works for a joint signing of the bilateral 123 agreement by both heads of state, Lalit Mansingh, former Ambassador to the US, said that India should not sign the document if the US insisted on reneging on its fuel supply assurances. According to him it would be unworthy of the Prime Minister to sign a treaty which was already declared as being non-binding. Writing in the Hindu, MK Bhadrakumar declared that Russian resurgence as demonstrated by the Transcaucasus conflict signaled the beginning of a new era—one in which the India-US strategic partnership must be considered to have lost its utility. The former Ambassador and expert commentator on the politics of the Caucasus and greater Asia has consistently called on the Manmohan Singh regime to look beyond its myopic fixation with the US.

Despite their strength and moral authority and despite including among their ranks a group of political parties on whose support the ruling coalition was dependent for its survival, the democratic forces and voices opposed to the nuclear compact could not prevail. So it is necessary to ask why democratic dissent in India lacked the robustness to defeat the Prime Minister’s determination to keep his nuclear tryst with President Bush. In addressing this question one needs to recognize how close the opposition came to consigning the nuclear bargain to oblivion. In fact thanks to the efforts of the Left Parties, the deal remained stalled for almost a year. By June 2008, Ashley Trellis, one of the original architects of the deal spoke of it as being almost certainly dead. The accord’s resuscitation was partly due to Dr Manmohan Singh’s willingness to dispense with democratic norms by making opportunistic alliances with parties that had hitherto been anathema and by wooing lawless elements in the Indian polity for the votes and abstinences that would yield him a victory in the Parliamentary vote of confidence. For the other half of the story—why and how the subversion of Indian democracy was accomplished—it is necessary to take into account the efforts of US-based NRI groups and their successful lobbying efforts in Congress for the passage of enabling legislation. Congressman Gary Ackerman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee probably said it best. Referring to the overwhelming presence of the Indian-American lobbyists who flocked to Washington from across the country when the 123 agreement came up for Congressional ratification in September, he made an analogy between the deal and a hospital patient surrounded by the solicitude of innumerable family members: …thanks to you the patient is alive. In the US system of governance, the undemocratic practice of lobbying for legislative favors is treated as a legitimate activity. Having migrated to the US from distant shores, NRIs have swiftly learned and implemented the art of political organizing for the purpose of gaining Congressional support for their objectives. Looking back over the various stages of the nuclear deal saga, one recognizes that home-grown opposition to the nuclear deal backed as it was by mere principle, knowledge of the history of US foreign policy, sane, reasoned arguments and democratic procedures never stood a chance when pitted against the formidable clout wielded by the NRI lobbies in the corridors of power in Washington DC.

NRI lobbying on behalf of the nuclear deal has been conducted under the banner of striving for an objective which is in the best interests of India and her people. Purportedly, the Indian-American is motivated by attachment to the country of origin. Unfortunately the NRI’s activist zeal on behalf on India-US nuclear cooperation appears to be lacking in even a modicum of reasoned acknowledgement of the dubious ethics of using political and financial clout and AIPAC inspired lobbying tactics to make an aggressive intervention in Indian politics for the purpose of defeating democratic forces and procedures in the supposedly beloved home country. The NRI lobbies are not known to have expressed any discomfort over the unconstitutional abandonment of Parliament’s monsoon session in deference to the US election calendar and the goal of ramrodding the deal through relevant NSG and Congressional approvals. It’s useful to remember that the NRI does not have citizenship rights in India and is not entitled to voting rights in Indian elections. By immigrating to the US in search of greener pastures and becoming a naturalized US citizen, the NRI to use the words of the deceased writer Arvind Das, distinguished journalist and activist, has already voted with his feet and ought rightly to defer to the political views and decisions of informed Indians. For the NRI lobbies to seize piloting rights in setting the direction of India’s foreign policy is to perpetrate an obscenity that does not need to be elaborated on. Back in July, Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar had commented as follows: Any hitching of our wagons to the U.S. global agenda at such a juncture when unprecedented fluidity has appeared in world politics will be incredibly foolhardy. The ambassador was reacting to the desire that Dr. Manmohan Singh had expressed at the G-8 summit for a future in which India and the US would stand tall shoulder to shoulder. The Prime Minister’s obsession with the US is mirrored in the NRI lobbyist’s parochial quest of India-US closeness—at the cost of binding Indian foreign policy to the strategic interests of a desperately floundering ex-superpower and sundering or placing strain on India’s ties with Iran as well as member nations of the OIC (Organization of the Islamic Conference) and the Non-Aligned Movement.

The bilateral 123 agreement was signed into law by President Bush on Wednesday October 8 and inked by the Indian Government two days thereafter. Nevertheless, the saga of the nuclear bargain cannot be said to be concluded as long as key episodes remain shrouded in secrecy. Democratic groups in India deserve to know the origin of the commitment to purchase US reactors capable of generating 10000 MW. When and where was this largesse to the American nuclear industry conceived? Did the commitment originate in the Prime Minister’s office or was it made at the behest of NRI lobbyists who regarded the purchase of Congressional legislative favor and the concomitant mortgaging of India’s tax revenues as a necessary step in attaining their nuclear paradise?

Then there is the little matter of clinching the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) which will give US forces access to Indian military facilities. Although the nuclear deal has been marketed in the name of India’s energy security needs, informed observers have known all along that civilian nuclear cooperation was merely the bait dangled by the State Department for the purpose of cementing a strategic military relationship with India. Accordingly no eyebrows were raised when Defense Minister Anthony arrived in Washington on the day following the securing of the NSG waiver. The timing of the visit was recognized as being replete with significance, and it was reported that the controversial LSA, much sought after by the Pentagon was one of the items on the table. The refusal to host military bases of either of the great powers of the Cold War era belonged with the key principles that once united the countries of the nonaligned movement. In the past, the objections of the Left Parties had restrained the UPA government from signing the LSA and making a formal break with the nonaligned movement. Now that the Prime Minister has dissociated himself from his former coalition allies, nothing stands in the way of his inking the agreement—and driving the last nail in the coffin of India’s past history of nonalignment.



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