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India needs a national line

The political discourse in India has grown so muddy, so partisan and so utterly adversarial, that there is not a single issue -- however critical it may be to the national interest -- on which a minimal consensus can be reached. Even on matters of defence and national security, parties refuse to sit together and accept a national 'line' that will be held, irrespective of the party in power. Indeed, in the realm of internal security, it appears that a consensus on assessments cannot even be maintained between India's Prime Minister and his Home Minister.

Within such a fractious polity an issue as complex as the nuclear agreement, with as polarising a power as the US, naturally excites extremes of opinion -- and these have been in evidence for over two-and-a-half-years now, without the general public being any clearer on the implications of the deal than they were at the start of the endless cycle of accusations, denials and counter-accusations that have defined the 'debate' on the issue. At its core, this debate has been more about personalities and political postures than about the actual merits of the India-US agreement, with some of the most incongruous arguments being put forward.

The most remarkable and disruptive, in this connection, have been the Left parties, whose principal objection is not that the deal does not give India the advantages that are claimed for it, or that it undermines India's interests, but rather that it constitutes a US conspiracy to 'contain' China. Interestingly, China itself has indicated that it is not opposed to the agreement -- clearly a case of the Indian Left being 'more loyal than the Chairman'. Significantly, the US itself is engaged in a complex web of relationship with China -- to the mutual benefit of both countries -- and the 'containment' perspective is only one of the (minor) streams in American strategic thinking. It is, moreover, a stream that finds few buyers in India, even as the country seeks better rapport with its neighbour, despite multiple irritants.

The Left parties have also argued that the agreement 'binds India to the US' on foreign policy issues, and diminishes India's options, particularly in the strategically crucial Central Asian region, where US policy seeks to contest Chinese and Russian influence. This simplistic reduction of the dynamics of contemporary global powershifts is truly astonishing. For one thing, the brief pre-eminence of the world's 'sole superpower' has undergone sustained and multiple challenges over the past years, and it is more than evident that we are rapidly moving into an era of multipolarity. By all accounts, India is one of the emerging poles in this future order.

To suggest that this rising India will be tied to the apron strings of declining American power is to reflect a sense of inferiority and lack of confidence that is astonishing. Even at its weakest, India has never accepted the subordination of its national interests to global bloc politics. To think that we will abruptly accede to the status of an American stooge, at a stage where our own power and prestige are augmenting dramatically, is to display no strategic understanding whatsoever.

The BJP's position is equally unfathomable, and appears to be more of a dog-in-the-manger response than a considered reaction to particular elements of the agreement. For one, negotiations for the deal commenced between the Clinton Administration and the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Government and, on a number of accounts, including, most recently, a statement by former US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, the BJP would have settled for less than the Manmohan Singh Government has secured. Crucially, Mr Brajesh Mishra, Prime Minister Vajpayee's National Security Adviser, has now come out openly exhorting the BJP and other opponents of the agreement to accept it as the best option available.

This goes to the very core of the issues at hand. Experts have raised valid concerns regarding some elements of the agreement, but have also posed the crucial question: Is there a better option at hand? We have suffered enormously under the sanctions imposed after 1998, and even existing programmes are now being curtailed by acute fuel shortages. Worse, technology denial not only affects our capabilities in the field of nuclear science, it has restricted access to a wide range of dual use technologies with crucial impact on scientific and technological advances across the board.

The India-US agreement not only provides full access to the entire range of hitherto denied technologies but also, as critics from the non-proliferation lobby have irately pointed out, a guarantee of strategic fuel reserves for the entire life of the safeguarded reactors, even if India were to 'violate' its self-imposed moratorium on future testing of military nuclear devices. Significantly, as exasperated non-proliferation advocates never tire of arguing, foreign supplies of nuclear fuel under the agreement would free India's present fuel stockpiles for military use.

The Left has now put the Government on notice again, threatening to pull out support over the nuclear deal, while the BJP continues with its contrary posturing. The Government has displayed little will to convince opponents of the deal, or to initiate measures to push it through, fearing an election that would certainly not be to the significant disadvantage of the Congress. A raging controversy, carried forward by ill-informed debates in Parliament and ill-conceived disputations in the popular media, has persisted over nearly three years now with the world witness to a system of governance that displays little evidence of consistency, strategic foresight or capacity for rational decision-making.

India is seeking 'global power' status, but its politics remains mired in the most extraordinary pettiness. This is an unsustainable combination. Minor coalition partners have repeatedly held the Government to ransom on crucial issue -- and not the nuclear deal alone. Parties in Opposition have taken obstruction of all Government initiatives as their principal role. Nowhere has the national interest been allowed to prevail over polarised party politics.

If this orientation persists, and if the national political establishment does not acquire the capacities to comprehend and explain complex global issues to its (often ignorant and obdurate) constituent members, and to act in accordance with India's strategic interests and objectives, for all our nine per cent rate of growth, we will remain a shoddy, shambling power, unable even to exert a positive influence within our immediate (and increasingly chaotic) neighbourhood.

(Published in The Pioneer, March 8, 2008)





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