A known strategic commentator in India termed the growing nexus with the US and overt nuclear weaponisation as undertaken by successive Indian governments since the early and mid-1990s as akin to “Crossing the rubicon”. The paradigm shift in the Indian foreign policy from non-alignment to adjustment to a new world dominated by a hegemon was welcomed in a sense by this commentator, whose views in turn were lapped up and rejoiced in the elite strategic circle, most of them beholden to the ruling classes’ and elite interests. A roadblock to the flowing currents across the rubicon toward an all encompassing strategic embrace of the US was, however, placed recently by a much maligned section of the Indian polity, the Left. Using its modicum strength to the fullest potential, the Left used the political circumstances to enforce a firm pause on the process of strategic alignment with the US, as defined by the Indo-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement. Why and how this had to be achieved are questions that this writer will delve with, in the course of a few articles in these columns.
The nuclear deal, popularly known as the 123 Agreement signed between the US and India is in doldrums. As no operationalisation of the deal has taken place (the next step was the negotiation of a safeguards agreement with the IAEA), because of political expediency, and since experts believe that the next steps in the operationalisation would require to be completed within an all-important timeline that suits the Bush presidency’s tenure, and because the Left is steadfast in its opposition to the implementation of the next step, a denouement favouring the completion of the deal seems not in the offing. If indeed this is the case, it would mark a major policy triumph for the Left in the country, who have protested against the deal, primarily because of the context which connotes the agreement. Remarkably this context is invoked only by the Left in India, while it is explicitly stated by the US government too. The context involves the building up of a strong strategic partnership between the US and India, involving collaboration between the respective militaries on security, logistics and strategic interoperability, investment and business ties in agriculture, retail and high technology, as well as increased congruence in foreign policy as determined by the US’ worldview of “spreading democracy”. The context is specified out even explicitly in the US legislature’s Hyde Act, which enabled the signing of the civilian nuclear 123 Agreement between the US and India. The Hyde Act has provisions that clearly mention that India must conform to what the US considers are policies that are in congruence of its own, related to countries such as Iran.
It is this worldview and strategic foreign policy context that is opposed tooth and nail by the Left, which wants the continued affirmation of the policy of non-alignment that drove India’s external relations since independence. Basically the concept of non-alignment was very much moored in realism (contrary to its critics’ opinion) as the policy helped India steer clear of alignment with ideology-driven ‘polar’ powers in the world while getting benefits from both the regimes (the US and the USSR). Attached to this utilitarian policy was a strong normative advocation of support to nations fighting for freedom from colonialism and solidarity toward other third world nations. The ideology that drove the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) was development, as these countries privileged self-development over the causes of supporting the West or building socialism beholden to Moscow or Beijing.
Today, since the end of the Cold War, the changed world has made it imperative for India to reconsider its priorities and the choices are very clear: align with the interests of the unilateral superpower, the US, or promote the cause of a multipolar world by striving to build strategic alliances with other big nations (Russia and China particularly), or work toward balancing the superpower taking confrontationist positions. The last choice would be foolhardy for a country that is striving to continue development, albeit with a greater role for the market in a globalised world. Therefore, the primary debate in the foreign affairs for the country is what to do, i.e. between the first two choices.
This is where the policy followed by successive Indian governments since 1995 must be emphasised. After overt nuclear weaponisation, the orientation of the NDA-led regime and the UPA regime has been to strive to settle differences with neighbours and at the same time, move closer to the US. The NDA regime particularly was gung ho on a strategic partnership with the US, calling the hegemon, a “natural ally”. India was over-enthusiastic in trying to affirm support to even those policies of the US that were considered pigheaded and dangerous to world peace, such as the National Missile Defence (NMD) programme, during the NDA rule. The current nuclear deal is a culmination of the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP), a sequence of steps agreed upon by the Republican-led US and the NDA-led India. Other initiatives include treaties that will allow for checking proliferation in waters close to the Subcontinent through joint patrols (the Proliferation Security Initiative), inter-operability between the militaries and logistics support (Logistics support Initiative) through a defence framework agreement.
The above ties are justified by its proponents who suggest that such close ties with the US will help India attain great power status, as its inclusion into the ‘nuclear mainstream’ through the legitimacy accorded by the US, its ‘hard power’ capabilities and economic growth numbers would enable India to sit at the high table of power in the comity of nations. The proponents also mention that a closer alliance with the US is mandated to balance China, whose superlative growth as a power in the Asian region is seen as a threat. Building on the already paranoid opinions of China in India, bolstered by select hostile events of the past and present, the proponents have made a case for “bandwagoning with the US”. They also affirm to the fact that leverage in issues (such as Kashmir) that have plagued the south Asian region can be obtained if closer ties with the US are maintained.
The opponents (mostly the sections of the Left supported by others who prefer a continuation of the independent foreign policy) are however clear: any movement for a strategic embrace with the US is fraught with dangers. Apart from being drawn into the whirlpool of American interests, which want to retain hegemony in the Asian region through various subtle means (from containment of rising powers such as Russia and China to engagement), India would lose its ability to secure its own interests vis-à-vis established ties with nations such as Iran in west Asia, the critics argue. The cost of ‘balancing China’ is high too, as it would cut badly into the improving ties with the neighbour. As the US tries to hitch India on to its march for maintaining global superpower status, India risks becoming yet another battleground pitting US interests against those who oppose the same, say the critics. Examples of Pakistan and South Korea are pointed out for negative influence of US strategic interests. The critics also argue that if at all a balance of power is needed, it is at the global level to deter conflicts such as the unjust war in Iraq, born out of unilateral moves by the US to control the resource-rich regions in the world. As the US ratchets up its rhetoric for confrontation against Iran, the critics feel that India would also be drawn into such moves to favour the US, as a quid pro quo for the Indo-US deals. Ambitious programmes that would help India address its energy security, as well as help create a pan-Asia energy grid, such as the peace pipeline between Iran, Pakistan and India would be in doldrums as the US expresses its displeasure at losing its strategic lever in the region. The undercutting of better relations with neighbours is yet another reason offered by the critics.
In essence, the above forms the raison d’être for the Left to oppose the culmination of the Indo-US nuclear deal. The Left has thus brought foreign policy into the core of political contestation in the country and has made it now imperative for the declaration of a blueprint of future Indian foreign policy. What would the contours of such an independent foreign policy be? This will be explored in future sections.
(to be continued)
The writer, trained in engineering and in political science, works with the editorial team at Economic and Political Weekly, and is an avid follower of sports, political economy and the performing arts