Saturday, June 21, 2008

Between Ego and Pragmatism

Nearly eight months have passed since a coordination committee was set up between the ruling coalition (the United Progressive Alliance – UPA) and its Left allies in India to negotiate the operationalisation of the Indo-US nuclear deal. Things seem to finally have come to a point where the substantial differences between them seem to be beyond bridging.

As such, this culmination was bound to happen, as the Left allies had never hinted about any movement away from their original position on the 123 agreement signed between India and the US. The Left parties had maintained consistently that the agreement’s text, the pretext for the deal and the subtext of strategic relations with the US was unacceptable to them. However, after prolonged negotiations, the UPA was able to wrest a concession from the Left parties to let the government negotiate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to prepare a safeguards agreement. This agreement was mandatory for the nuclear deal to go ahead, as it provided the Indian government approval from the IAEA to get fuel for the civilian nuclear reactors. The concession from the Left parties came along with the rider that the government was supposed to let text of the safeguards agreement to be presented to the coordination committee, which would then decide upon the next course of action, the decision to let the agreement to be taken to the IAEA board of governors for sealing.

After months of hard negotiations with the IAEA, the government was finally able to ‘freeze’ the safeguards agreement with the multilateral body. However, the subsequent step, i.e. discussion in the committee about the frozen text never materialised, as the Left parties complained that they were not shown the complete text, but only a summary of the agreement. At the same time, the Left parties maintained that it had agreed for the safeguards agreement to be finalised with the IAEA, because this was merely a technical step that enabled nuclear cooperation with various nuclear reactor and fuel suppliers in the world. The Left parties, however, maintained that they still had various problems with the strategic dimensions inherent in the nuclear deal as well as with other provisions of the 123 agreement.

The government has now reconciled to the fact that no matter how much it could try, it would not be able to persuade its Left allies to budge from their stated positions on various issues linked with the deal. The necessity, therefore, arose to ensure that all its partners in government (other political parties in alliance within government) were in line with the government’s decision to go ahead with the deal, Left support or not. This was not forthcoming to the ruling Congress party eight months ago, when the allies had argued that losing the Left parties’ support would have meant immediate elections and were not willing to risk the government in going ahead with the deal. But this time, the allies have hinted that they support the decision (if made) to go ahead with the nuclear deal, even if the Left parties do not come aboard. This change in stance has therefore meant that speculations have heightened about early elections, particularly in the winter (November/December).

Several problems still exist in a scenario where the Left parties withdraw support and the government tries to push through the deal by letting the safeguards agreement to be given to the IAEA board of governors. Firstly, if the Left parties withdraw support, the government is reduced to a numerical minority entailing a vote of confidence once the president gives a go ahead for such a vote. If the government goes ahead with the next step in the finalisation of the nuclear deal, it would mean that a minority government had taken this step, surely a dubious course of action. Already in numerous discussions in parliament on the issue of the nuclear deal, it has been clear that the majority of parliamentarians are against the present form of the nuclear deal, be it the major opposition party, the BJP or other parties outside the UPA and the Left, such as the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Telugu Desam Party (regional outfits restricted to support in stats such as Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh).

The Congress-led government’s calculations would therefore mean that in order to escape from the fact of being a minority government, they would have to take support from the SP. Or it would believe that it would not mind facing an early election despite the troubled waters that the government has been wading through over quite some time now, with a raging inflation problem, continuing agrarian distress and no significant dent in poverty or livelihood as yet.

Considering that the Congress party has faced reverses in many a state election (the latest of which was in a southern state, Karnataka where the BJP came to power for the first time in its history), there is no guarantee that it could impress the voting populace with the slew of populist moves that it’s government has undertaken of late, particularly the farmers’ loan waiver scheme. The Congress believes that some of the welfare measures that the government had undertaken such as the extension of the Employment guarantee act (NREGA) to all districts in the country, other rural infrastructure projects such as the Bharat Nirman programme would keep it in good stead. Evidence, however, points out to the contrary. The opposition BJP has stolen a march in implementation of the NREGA and has handled regional contradictions better.

Keeping the above in mind, it seems that the new dogged approach of the government to go ahead with the nuclear deal even at the cost of losing power, would be quite quixotic. Supporters of such a move, particularly the mainstream media, have argued that domestic considerations should not curtail an important move such as the nuclear deal, which according to them, legitimises India’s nuclear energy programme without curtailing its strategic programme and recognises the country as a valid nuclear power. The costs of imported nuclear power, the problems of handling nuclear waste, the strategic implications of dovetailing into a cosy relationship with a unipolar hegemon and other such arguments have not cut much ice with the powerful supporters of the deal. The mainstream media for example has pretty much hidden the simple fact that the deal does not enjoy popular support in the parliament. Hence, we read editorial after editorial exhorting the government to commit suicide, but let the nuclear deal go through and care two hoots about the naysayers, including the Left. The ruling coalition therefore seems stuck in a cleft between honouring ego – after all, the government had considered the nuclear deal to be a grand achievement and a prestige issue – and remaining pragmatic. Eight months ago, it veered toward the latter, sensing that any rupture within the coalition would only benefit the BJP but today, driven by the exuberance of its prime minister, the coalition seems to be dithering toward the former. The fact that the US has done its all in setting a timetable for the deal to go through, made statements suggesting that it is willing to deal with a minority government and has used various kinds of soft power to harness support for the deal in the country, only increases the pressure on the government to push the deal through at the cost of popular legislative support.

This writer has pointed out that there are other means of harnessing energy to meet immediate needs. From the proposed gas pipeline from Iran to securing hydro power contracts with the newly formed secular democratic republic of Nepal, the opportunities for attaining sustainable energy are plenty. The nuclear deal does have its pros in terms of assuring uranium supply to fuel-starved Indian nuclear reactors but it also comes with a host of cons that militate against making the deal a sine qua non. It is hence advisable for the government to not convert the imperative of improving energy availability into a matter of prestige involving the operationalisation of the Indo-US nuclear deal at the cost of losing power itself. There is still time to evolve a way out for maximising options for energy without having to rely on the one-horse nuclear deal issue.

1 comment:

Sushobhan Sen said...

The question of energy security takes precedence for a nation of a billion people. Agreed that the IPI Pipeline (and even the TAPI Project) could meet some of our needs, the truth is that such deals would leave us at the mercy of undemocratic governments in the Mid East and Central Asia.

Furthermore, if we ever want to fully develop our fast breeder, thorium powered reactors, we will need uranium for testing. Without uranium to help it, thorium is as of today an uneconomical fuel for electricity.

And it is not a deal between the US and India alone. India is free to cancel the deal in a year or less if it so chooses to. But once the deal is done, other countries (including our "all weather" ally France) have said that they would come in with nuclear fuel and expertise to ensure India's energy security. Only the 123 agreement can legitimise such a move and prevent those countries friendly to us from facing the ire of the world.

And the communists never support progress and development. A two-day trek through West Bengal or Tripura is enough to show how outdated, narrow-minded and impoverishing their policies are.