Manmohan's dangerous nuclear gamble

07 November 2007
In the face of strong opposition to the India-US nuclear deal within his coalition government and under heavy US pressure, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh seems ready to impose an early election or attempt a compromise with the right-wing BJP party to push the deal through.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is angry — angry with his own Congress party, his United Progressive Alliance partners, and with the Left parties which support the UPA. So angry that he has repeatedly deplored their resistance to what he regards as a "historic" breakthrough which posterity will remember: the controversial and fraught United States-Indian nuclear deal. Singh first gratuitously chided the Left parties in August and challenged them to withdraw their lifeline support to the UPA. His aggressive tone surprised even Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Then, he trained his guns on the UPA allies who oppose an early national election, which would be precipitated if the government rams the deal through. Since then, he has blown hot and cold. On October 23, he told global corporate consultant McKinsey's directors that accelerating growth is all-important. "However, given the nature of competitive politics and the very fractured mandate given to governments, it has become difficult … to do what is manifestly obvious." Exactly a week later, he reiterated that the delay in completing the deal doesn't mean it's "the end of the road." However, what's "manifestly obvious" to Singh isn't faintly visible to many in his coalition and the public. That's why there's a sharp polarisation over the deal's content, context, and strategic and energy implications. Singh's statements have further polarised opinion and encouraged the more fervent among the deal's backers to demand that he "call the Left's bluff", and instead try to enlist the Bharatiya Janata Party's support. If that means early elections — in case the BJP doesn't change its anti-deal stand -- then, so be it. Singh has been subject to extraordinarily high-powered lobbying by U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, and Ambassador to India David Mulford. Equally significantly, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and former U.S. ambassadors to India, Frank Wisner and Robert Blackwill, have been in India urging the UPA to expedite the deal's passage. In addition, there's pressure from the U.S-India CEOs' Forum in Mumbai and the 'Fortune' Global Forum in New Delhi India has never before witnessed such concentrated heavy-handed lobbying on any issue. For its part, the BJP taunts Singh about being the "weakest-ever" Prime Minister and demands that he resign! Although their aims are entirely different, both camps want Singh to adopt a confrontationist and "principled" stance. Both are comprehensively mistaken. Singh is simply not the kind of person who quits a position of power out of conviction. Here are three instances of how he chooses his way out of a dilemma. In Oct-Nov 1984, Singh was the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India. He was profoundly saddened by the anti-Sikh violence following Indira Gandhi's assassination, and especially pained at the role played by certain Congress leaders in organising it. Singh told his close friends he would never have anything to do with the Congress or its governments. But, he did not quit the RBI. In January 1985, he was promoted Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission. Between August 1987 and November 1990, Singh was Secretary-General of the South Commission, established by former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere to promote equitable relations between the industrialised Global North and the developing Global South. Singh was responsible for organising the Commission's acclaimed report, The Challenge to the South. This powerfully critiqued the "Washington Consensus"-style policies the World Bank and International Monetary Fund prescribe, and outlined alternatives. Just months later, Singh became Finance Minister and proceeded to advocate and implement those very policies with great ardour! In 1991, Singh was elected to the Rajya Sabha (Council of States) from Assam after declaring that he's normally resident there -- when he lived in Delhi. Many expected him to uphold honesty in public life by correcting this anomaly. But all he did was change his claimed permanent residence from c/o Hemaprabha Saikia (wife of a former Chief Minister), to another address in Assam. So it's not realistic to expect Manmohan Singh to resign over the nuclear deal despite public complaints against his allies. Rather, he has been ambivalent, even deceptive. Three weeks ago, he said: "… if the deal doesn't come through, it will be a disappointment, but it will not be the end of life." But he has since dropped hints that he'll push the deal through. Now Singh seems to be planning to impose an early election on the UPA or a dishonourable compromise with the BJP to push the deal through. A small section of Right-wing Congressmen is goading him towards fresh elections, which they wishfully believe, might produce a better result for their party than in 2004. Ranged on the other side are a majority of Congress and UPA leaders, including heavyweights like Pranab Mukherjee, and leaders of the DMK, Rashtriya Janata Dal and Nationalist Congress. They believe the UPA would be foolish to go into elections with the nuclear deal banner. The UPA would probably still fall short of a majority and become dependent on groupings like the Bahujan Samaj Party, which are more unpredictable and unreliable than the Left. Therefore, these circles argue, the present arrangement should continue. The alternative might mean losing both the government and the deal. It's also likely that many key-states in the IAEA and the Nuclear Suppliers' Group will strongly oppose the deal because it's clear that it doesn't enjoy strong domestic support, leave alone consensus. The Congress would be ill-advised to wreck the government and precipitate mid-term elections. That would be a misadventure of phenomenal proportions. The Congress and the UPA must pull back from the precipice even if the BJP further dilutes its stand under American coaxing. The BJP is indeed being hotly pursued by the US, both directly and through lobbyists like Kissinger. Washington wants to repeat in India something akin to the Musharraf-Benazir power-sharing arrangement in Pakistan! However, much as the Indian and US elites would like to see cohabitation between the Congress and BJP on the nuclear deal (and economic policy), it may not come about. It's not that the BJP has a principled opposition to the deal. It's largely opportunistic. Both its ideology and its social base favour the deal. It initiated talks on it while in power. Yet, the BJP will find it extremely difficult to move from demanding the deal's re-negotiation to supporting it. It certainly wouldn't want to help the Congress without extracting a high price. The Congress can only damage its secular credentials by accepting its help. It would be prudent for the Congress-UPA to give up on the nuclear deal, and rework its damaged relationship with the Left while adopting progressive social-economic agendas. The UPA has done well to set up a land reforms commission in response to a recent march of thousands of dispossessed people from Gwalior to Delhi. It must do more -- by treating the Left as an asset and a moral beacon. This is the first time that there's no Left-of-centre pressure-group inside the Congress which promotes critical self-reflection. That function has fallen to the Left. The UPA will regain its bearings only by adopting a broad Left-leaning stance. This demands a change in the UPA's leadership style and a commitment to authentic coalition politics through consensus building.