A deal-breaker for India

Posted in India | 22-Jul-08 | Author: M K Bhadrakumar| Source: Asia Times

An Indian soldier stands guard in front of the Parliament house in New Delhi.

History never ceases to surprise. What began as the "Great Middle East" strategy in the minds of a neo-conservative Connecticut Yankee from Texas may end up in the democratization of India. Yes, paradoxically, the legacy of the George W Bush era for South Asia may turn out to be that the 60-year old democratization process in India took a quantum leap.

In a colonial bungalow on a leafy street in central Delhi on Sunday afternoon, a group of political leaders gathered. What is unfolding is indeed a historical process, and like when forces of history begin to unfold them, old dykes are bound to give away. Indians are holding breath. What lies ahead is how torrential the flow becomes as it gathers speed. Indian politics is never going to be the same again.

Curiously, it all began with the civilian nuclear cooperation agreement between the Bush administration and the coalition known as the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) which rules in Delhi - known somewhat aptly in India as "the deal". Now, the deal is highly likely to unravel, primarily for the reason that transparency was lacking in its negotiation.

The US-India nuclear deal would provide India with access to American civilian nuclear technology in exchange for nuclear-armed India agreeing to oversight by the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency.

Given the deal's far-reaching consequences, and considering that such a strategic direction to India's foreign and security policy didn't even figure as part of the so-called Common Minimum Program that formed the basis of the present coalition government in Delhi, the UPA ought to have felt a greater need than ever for public accountability while embarking on such an initiative.

But exactly the contrary happened. An extraordinary veil of secrecy was maintained by the UPA, so much so that the Indian public came to depend on information that trickled in from time to time from US discourses on the Internet. The UPA went back on assurances to the Indian parliament, where the majority opinion consistently voiced reservations over the deal right from the outset, that it wouldn't hustle such an important initiative through.

Instead, the government blatantly resorted to manipulative methods of dissimulation and doublespeak to sidestep parliament. The latest Delhi grapevine is that the government has been bribing members of parliament to come on board the deal and that the going rate of purchase of loyalty is US$6.25 million per member. Surely, that is corruption on an epic scale for even a notoriously corrupt country like India, which Transparency International places at somewhere near the bottom of the pit in the world community.

The Congress party-led UPA faces a no confidence debate in parliament on Tuesday. This follows the withdrawal of support to the government by its left-wing allies in protest against the deal with the US. If the government loses the vote, early elections are likely - they are currently scheduled for May next year - and the deal could be abandoned.

The Bush administration will be watching closely the efficacy of pushing such a controversial deal through against robust opinion in a democratic society. It sets an important precedent. Two crucial tests lie ahead in Central Europe - deployment of the components of the US missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Ukraine's membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization - where the majority opinion is manifestly against deal-making with the US, but the Bush administration is pressing ahead regardless.

The brashness with which US officials kept pressing the UPA to conclude the deal has badly exposed the Indian government's claim that it is all about India's energy security. By now, it is fairly well substantiated that the deal which was projected as in India's favor benefits Washington immeasurably.

Business deals to the tune of $100 million are expected to follow by way of selling nuclear reactors to India; there is a pronounced non-proliferation agenda in the deal in so far as Delhi virtually surrenders its right to have nuclear tests and agrees to monitoring of its nuclear program, including fissile material production in perpetuity; the deal envisages that Indian foreign policy will be congruent to US global strategies, especially on acute problem areas such as Iran; the deal enables the US to selectively waive its embargo on dual-use technology to India, which, in turn, enables the American military-industrial complex to enter the huge Indian market as an arms supplier; and places India incrementally as an ally in the US's Asian strategies against Russia and China, or at the very least ensures against a future Russia-China-India entente cordiale.

From the Indian point of view, of course, it is crystal clear that the raison d'etre of the deal is its burning ambition to become a "great power". Clearly, even if India implements the deal in its entirety in a full-throttled way - which seldom happens, given the high rate of waste, inefficiency and corruption - nuclear energy, which presently meets 3% of India's power needs, may account for 7% of estimated needs in a 15-20 year timeframe, though the cost per unit of power production will be significantly higher for nuclear energy. And, indeed, India has far from exhausted its potential to tap other conventional methods of power production, such as coal or hydo-electric power, and is yet to take a serious look at other renewable forms, such as solar or wind energy.

There are acolytes of the deal nonetheless in India. The unabashedly pro-US leadership in India, especially Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, sees it as "locking in" India as a strategic partner of the US, with the all-round benefits that it is expected to bring for the country in its passage through the coming decades.

Ideologically speaking, they are convinced that India is a "natural ally" of the US. They envisage that the deal makes the India-US "strategic partnership" virtually irreversible. That is, the deal forms an integral part of a wholesome agenda. For the Indian strategic community, the deal finally opens up the door to US military technology, especially the fascinating US missile defense system, which promises the only means whereby India could hope to neutralize China's strategic capability. Indian strategists visualize that even as Delhi begins to cope with the immense challenge of coming to terms with China's phenomenal rise, it needs US support and protection.

For corporate India, especially a handful of powerful business houses, the deal signifies a gravy train that will run on for decades to come. (The US-India Business Council estimates there could be anywhere up to $ 150 billion worth of business generated by the deal.) Conceivably, for the ruling Congress party, which is highly experienced in government, that makes sound pork-barrel politics of unprecedented proportions.

For the great Indian middle class, which is enamored of everything connected with "Amrika", the deal provides the key to a dream world in which Indians could indulge in consumerism and happily live ever after as Americans do. (Bush's rating is the highest anywhere in the world among the Indian middle class.) Surprisingly, even sections of the Indian intelligentsia, including much of the English-speaking media, suspend all disbelief and root for the deal - some even putting forth such exotic arguments that if Delhi doesn't clinch the deal after Manmohan having given word to Bush, India's international standing will suffer and the world community will not take India seriously. But, then, there has been a pervasive US penetration of Indian media organizations and think-tanks in recent years.

Thus, a sharp polarization is taking place in Indian opinion, spearheaded on the one hand by the government led by Manmohan, a former World Bank official, and a range of opinion that opposes the deal tooth and nail, which includes political parties, the scientific community and sections of the Indian intelligentsia.

This split will surface in the vote in parliament on Tuesday. The opposition has threatened it will vote out the government and thereby scotch the deal. The government is determined that it will do its damndest to see that doesn't happen. It is canvassing the support of even three members of parliament who are serving jail terms on murder charges. It is leaving nothing to chance. The establishment apparatus is working overtime, arm-twisting the reluctant or undecided to fall in line.

The silver lining is that against this unseemly backdrop of wheeling and dealing, a massive realignment of political forces has also ensued, which now seems poised to leap far beyond the deal controversy and profoundly remake India's political landscape. The deal holds the potential of becoming a defining moment in India's political economy. India's left parties, which staunchly oppose the deal, have taken the initiative of reaching out to like-minded political forces. And these forces include an important segment of India's political spectrum representing the dispossessed and humiliated and historically oppressed sections of Hindu society - known as "dalits" and "backward classes" - and alienated Muslims which are numerically large and have lately begun asserting their rights and prerogative for social and political accommodation in India's highly stratified "democratic" system.

The significance of Sunday's gathering in Delhi is that it is for the first time that in such a pronounced way, the forces of radical change in Indian politics are reaching out to each other and creating a critical mass of awakening. All indications are that beyond the deal controversy, a coalition of political forces is emerging. There is bound to be high drama, as the main "dalit" party, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) , which hitherto has substantial influence in India's populous northern province (Uttar Pradesh), where it is the ruling party already, is now poised to enter national politics, thanks to an alliance with the left parties. There is already talk that the proposed alliance will be inclined to project the BSP's charismatic leader, Kumari Mayawati, as India's future prime minister.

The very thought of Mayawati wearing the mantle of prime ministership has fired up public imagination. The Indian urban middle class was hitherto cocksure that the country would never allow such an "outrageous" thing to happen. Its favorite ploy has always been to co-opt and assimilate promising dalit leaders by corrupting them.

Ironically, the staunch middle class supporters of the deal have been stunned into silence. Even if "Amrika" is fascinating, even if the strategic cooperation will enable Delhi to stare eyeball-to-eyeball at Beijing, even if it brings such goodies as fanciful weapon systems for the armed forces, even if it provides for mind-boggling levels of kickbacks and political sleaze - still, nonetheless is it worthwhile if it may open the way for a lowly dalit agitator to become India's prime minister? This is the question that has haunted proponents of the deal in the secret attics of their minds for the past 48 hours.

Indians seldom discuss their caste prejudices. They prefer to pretend they are above caste prejudices. Therefore, the present dilemma of the political elite and the ruling class over Mayawati is acute. Her rise cannot be blocked as it will be in perfect accordance with democratic principles. She will only assume power on the basis of a popular mandate in a democratic election. But, still, even then, something militates in the mind of the ruling elite. The heart of the matter is that they loathe and dread the prospect. The rightly apprehend that once the dispossessed sections of Indian society capture political power in Delhi, that could turn out to be the beginning of the end of the 60-year established political order in independent India.

The mainstream political parties - Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party - are extremely nervous that they stand to lose heavily if the forces of radical change gain political ascendancy and encroach into the center stage of Indian politics. In fact, the BSP's passage to power as a national party lies through the graveyards of both the Congress and the BJP.

For India's medium- and long-term development as a modern democratic state, it is imperative that the BSP moves into the mainstream of national politics. Social and political oppression of the dalits is a continuing blight on India's stature as a modern, civilized country. What is democracy worth if people cannot walk the streets on account of their lowly caste or drink water from a village well or can have no access to the due process of law because they have been "untouchables" for millennia?

The sad reality is that Indian democracy has given a wide berth to those hundreds of millions of Indians. Simply put, there hasn't been sufficient enough change through the past 60 years that representative rule ought to have provided.

Ironically, the India-US nuclear deal is becoming the harbinger of change in the country, but for a most unexpected reason. The deal will have served a great purpose if it logically leads to the rise of Mayawati as Manmohan's worthy successor. The political initiative taken by the Indian left to reach out to the BSP is of historical significance. It comes as a wind of change that promises to clear away accumulated debris. The class struggle in Indian conditions cannot be envisaged without addressing the social and political oppression that goes on in the name of caste in Hindu society.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.