Saturday, July 05, 2008

A return to the murky past

In a dramatic fortnight, the parliamentary arithmetic in India has been manipulated in a manner that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government led by prime minister Manmohan Singh is now able to muster enough support more or less to push through its pet project: the Indo-US nuclear deal. What has changed between now and a fortnight ago is merely one factor- the sudden volte face of the Samajwadi Party which boasts of 39 members of parliament on the issue of the nuclear deal. From having excoriated the government for having betrayed the nation's independent foreign policy on the nuclear deal, today, the SP has come out in support of the deal. What explains this shift?

The Samajwadi Party is led by Mulayam Singh Yadav, one of the several “socialist” politicians belonging to the erstwhile united Janata Party which came into power in India after the emergency in 1977. Yadav since then, has been the chief minister of India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh (UP) and was also a defence minister in the United Front (a coalition of parties apart from the two big units, the Congress and the BJP) which was in power between 1996 and 1998. Yadav has been a consistent opponent of the Congress party as well as the BJP. His party had enjoyed spells of power owing to catering exclusively to the landed backward classes and minority sections in the state and has enjoyed a rather sullied reputation, accused of running a government in UP that encouraged criminalisation of politics. Over the last few years, the SP has tried to play the role of an anchor of a front that is equally opposed to both the Congress and the BJP, called the UNPA (United National Progressive Alliance) which includes other regional parties across the country. The front never took off as they have not been able to manage their internal contradictions and because of the fact that the main national force that opposes both the Congress and the BJP, the Left Front remained an ally of the Congress in the centre to keep the BJP out of power.

The SP has now seen it expedient to support the Congress led UPA because of various reasons. The simplest one to understand is the local dynamics in the UP state. The SP's primary opponent, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has managed to stitch a caste arithmetic and a support base that seems to be a formidable one and which resulted in a thumping victory for the party in the last held assembly elections in the state. Since coming to power, the BSP has only grown in strength and has “bullied” the SP with several moves that have embroiled the SP leaders with corruption cases and other issues. The SP realises that it needs to change its strategy in the state to provide a viable and a strong opposition to the BSP. It sees that the alliance with the Congress could achieve this need of the party.

The SP also enjoys the support of big time monopoly capitalists in the state. The younger sibling of the Ambani family, Anil Ambani was part of a development council conceived by the SP when in power. The SP second-in-command, Amar Singh, who is openly close to various people with corporate affiliations was the head of the now defunct council. The party has also been very closely identified with the Sahara group, which was recently in news over its financial arm being prohibited by the RBI from accepting deposits. The ban on deposits was later relaxed with a new conditionality based on a future date. While announcing the thawing of relations with the Congress, Amar Singh criticised the functioning of, in particular, two ministries in the government, the petroleum and the finance ministry. He criticised the government for not implementing the demand to impose taxes on windfall profits of private companies (read Reliance Petroleum owned by Anil's rival brother Mukesh) which exported petroleum products and even demanded a ban on such export.

It is common knowledge that relations between the two Ambani brothers, who had split the Reliance group inherited from their father are not cordial. The family feud has been reported in the Indian press over various issues, such as the merger with telecommunications group MTN of Anil Ambani's Reliance Communications and the pricing of gas supplied by Reliance India Limited (owned by Mukesh Ambani) to Reliance Energy owned by Anil Ambani. Has Amar Singh's rant against the current petroleum minister (Murli Deora, who is seen to be close to Mukesh Ambani) got to do with the feud? That is the question to be asked, and is being asked in several media quarters.

The SP's sudden volte face on the nuclear deal is being explained by the party's spokespersons (Amar Singh in particular) as being driven by clarifications issued by the prime minister's office and because of advice given by former president and missile scientist Abdul Kalam. This is a spurious reasoning, as the assurances and clarifications do not answer how the Hyde Act will impinge upon the nuclear energy partnership between India and the US, as has been argued by the left parties and was put forth as the main reason for opposing the nuclear deal by the SP itself. Only last year, at the peak of the crisis over the nuclear deal, a conference was called to discuss India's independent foreign policy in light of the nuclear deal. Addressed by nuclear scientists, energy specialists, former members of the judiciary, the conference also featured political parties like the CPI(M), the CPI, the Telugu Desam party apart from the SP. The SP's representative Ram Gopal Yadav clearly mentioned the pernicious influence of the Hyde Act over the Indo-US nuclear deal to be the main reason for opposing the deal. The PMO's (primer minister's office) recent remark that the 123 Agreement overrides the Hyde Act is not shared by the Americans who continue to insist that clauses in the act which desist India from having energy relationships with Iran would come to play if India proceeds with the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline implementation. From US ambassador David Mulford to a host of US Congressmen, this position has been clearly laid out. That the SP has suddenly decided that the PMO's word is now gospel surely cannot be justified by the ostensible reasons that the party has offered.

Added to these sectional (in non-euphemistic terms- crony capitalism) and regional factors in play, there is this murky role of the US itself, which has constantly engaged in pressurising the Indian polity in going ahead with the deal. Only a week ago, Gary Ackerman, the chairman of the US Congressional Caucus on India had convened a conference which tried to find ways to operationalise the 123 Agreement, in Washington. Among the discussed aspects was the ways to manipulate the “political arithmetic” to get the deal to be passed through in the country. That this sudden shift by the regional party has changed exactly the arithmetic of political equations vis-a-vis the nuclear deal raises even more eyebrows and uncomfortable questions about the murky manner in which a staunch opponent of the deal has turned a supporter.

The Samajwadi Party might well believe that a partnership with the Congress is what that suits political interests now and it would also believe that the 123 Agreement with the US is not such a major matter that would change public opinion in electoral matters. They may even justify their support to the 123 Agreement divorcing it from their understanding about the strategic and military partnership between India and the US- the real reason for the US dangling the nuclear deal. But the fact remains that the next step in operationalisation of the nuclear deal, if it is achieved, would have been done in a highly suspicious and murky manner owing to the efforts of an unelected prime minister who is intent on pushing the deal through, no matter what is the cost.

The prime minister and his party have no qualms about breaking a written agreement with the left parties which clearly states that the next step in the operationalisation of the nuclear deal would only commence after the UPA-Left committee on the deal comes out with its decisions on the IAEA safeguards agreement. So far no decision was made on this regard, as even the safeguards agreement was hidden from the purview of the committee. As if one break in moral protocol was not enough, the Congress now builds a relationship based on shady terms with a former foe.

Till the past few days, the functioning of the UPA government was governed by a programmatic approach framed out in a common minimum programme between the UPA allies and the left parties who supported them from outside. This was a major break from the wheeling-dealing, power and patronage distribution terms that decided coalition building in the country over the last decade. The Congress' kowtowing to its prime minister's demand to throw the device of virtue away in order to push an agenda decided by the dubious George Bush administration brings back the murky details of immoral politics into government functioning in the country.

Article written for The Post

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