The Nuclear Deal and Democracy

Background for Znet Readers: Ater two years of negotiations, India and the US finalized a nuclear deal last year. However, further progress on the deal was stalled by the Communist parties in India that provided crucial parliamentary support to the government. For a year,  the deal has occupied center stage in the Indian media, frequently hitting the headlines. Earlier this week, ahead of the G8 summit, the government decided to proceed with the accord; subsequently, the left parties withdrew their support to the government. Although the government hopes to survive this crisis with the help  of a new ally, the very survival of the ruling coalition has been jeopardized! This article argues that the reason for this risky maneuver is that the Indian government is trying to show the world that it can quash domestic dissent to meet international expectations

While much has been written about the Indo-US nuclear deal, a central question remains unasked: "Why is the deal important enough to precipitate a crisis in the government?".

The answer that the proponents of the deal provide — that the deal is essential for energy security — is, evidently, simple minded. According to figures provided by Anil Kakodkar — the chairperson of the Department of Atomic Energy — the deal will increase India’s installed energy capacity by 2.5% by 2020 (1).  While the Prime Minister may be perspicacious, this stretches the bounds of sagacity; simply put, governments do not risk self sacrifice for small gains in energy production, 12 years in the future. When one compounds this insignificant gain with the considerable uncertainty that the deal will  actually clear the American congress before September, the energy security argument becomes completely untenable.

Indeed, the very desperation of the government to pass this deal indicates, more clearly than anything else,  that the deal is not just about energy. While it is clear that the deal is about a larger strategic relationship with the US, this begs the question; most aspects of this relationship, including closer military and economic ties seem to be independent of the deal. So, what is the fuss about?

This question is answered candidly in the American strategic discourse.  An alliance with the US entails an essential prerequisite: the government should be in a position to fulfill American demands, irrespective of domestic political considerations. Although, this is deeply undemocratic, this makes sense. Imagine the horror of American legislators if they were to help India obtain a seat in the security council only to find the Indian government arguing against American interference in Venezuela!

Incidentally, this doctrine applies to any bilateral relationship involving the US. During the Iraq war, Rumsfeld dismissed France and Germany as belonging to `old’ Europe. As Chomsky pointed out (2),  the countries of `new’ Europe — like Italy or Spain — were those that supported Washington in spite of strong domestic opposition.

Viewed from this perspective, India has behaved well in recent years. Ashley Tellis, an influential advisor to the US government, arguing for the deal in a testimony to the US House of representatives approvingly noted at least 10 instances — including India’s vote against Iran, its support for the war in Afghanistan and its endorsement  of American positions on climate change, missile defense and chemical weapons — where the Indian government acted against domestic opposition and long held policies to support the US.(3)

On the other hand, the existence of an independent democratic discourse in India is a matter of great concern for the US. Ashton Carter, a member of the Clinton administration, lamented to the US senate that the fact that India was a democracy meant that "no government in Delhi can … commit it to a broad set of actions in support of U.S. Interests" before pointing out that India’s "… stubborn adherence to independent positions regarding the world order, economic development, and nuclear security" created a serious hazard for Indo-US strategic ties.(4)

These testimonies merely articulate what is public knowledge. Washington expects compliance from its allies. If India is to be a trusted ally it cannot protest loudly against the oppression of Palestinians, organize developing countries in defense of Iran or repudiate iniquitous conditions laid down by the WTO; it must support the US in diplomatic forums and provide logistical support for US military operations in   Asia. Furthermore, and this is critical for American policy makers, this support cannot be contingent on the vagaries of Indian politics. Hence, while the Indian elite is quite willing to accede to these demands, it must first convince the US that its house is in order.  It must tame the complexities of Indian democracy so that it can deliver on what it promises. The importance of this cannot be overstated.

In this context, the nuclear deal provides a high profile test case. The passage of the deal, although materially insignificant, is an extremely important matter of principle. If domestic political considerations cause the government to balk, that sets a terrible example and leaves India — in the words of Ronen Sen — with  "zero credibility".(5) The consequent loss of trust that this will engender in Washington will damage ties with the US for years to come.

In any case, Indian ruling classes have been impatient with democratic dissent since it creates difficulties in their attempts to ram through an elite agenda. As Chidambaram put it (6), "Indian … democracy has often paralyzed decision making … this approach must change." After the deal was stalled last year,  Manmohan Singh wondered whether a "single party state" would be preferable!(7)

India’s newly empowered elite now finds that this frustrating political process threatens its global aspirations. This has brought together powerful interests ranging from India Inc. to the NRI lobby in an attempt to remove roadblocks to the deal.  These forces are strong enough to impel the government to risk its own survival.

The message, conveyed to the G8, was that India is ruled by a government that is willing to make (in the words of  Nicholas Burns, the American negotiator for the nuclear deal),  "courageous decisions" (8)  — and bulldoze domestic dissent — if this is demanded by Washington or Brussels!

This is bad news for Indian democracy. The Indian system, despite its tremendous iniquities and imperfections is based on the notion that governments privilege their survival over all else. The idea that a government may imperil its own existence to fulfill commitments made to a foreign government is antithetical to the idea of democracy. The recent baffling actions of the Manmohan Singh government must be understood as a worrying loss of democratic space.


(1)The Hindu, 31 October, 2007 and "Energy for India in the coming decades", Anil Kakodkar, http://www.dae.gov.in/iaea/ak-paris0305.doc

(2)Znet, 31 October, 2003

(3)Testimony by Ashley J. Tellis before the House Committee on International Relations, November 16, 2005

(4)Ashton Carter, Testimony Testimony before the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, November 2, 2005.

(5)Rediff, Aug 20, 2007: http://www.rediff.com/news/2007/aug/20inter.htm

(6)Convocation Address, IIM Ahmedabad, March 31, 2007: http://financeminister.gov.in/public_speeches/pdf/2007.3.31%20Convocation%20Address,%20IIM,%20Ahmedabad.pdf

(7)Inaugural Address to the 4th International Conference on Federalism, November 5, 2007

(8)The Hindu, March 1, 2008

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