Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's weak response to U.S. fatwas, his pro-Western stand on Iran, and his decision to divest Mani Shankar Aiyar of the Petroleum Ministry speak of a new willingness to kowtow to Washington.
Four days after United States Ambassador David C. Mulford's arrogant and blatant interference in India's policy space, the nation was administered another shock. In the Cabinet reshuffle, Mani Shankar Aiyar was stripped of the Petroleum, Oil and Natural Gas portfolio at a critical juncture in the trajectory of India's energy economy. The charge was transferred to Murli Deora, one of India's most right-wing, pro-U.S., and pro-big business politicians. Mani Shankar Aiyar was given Youth Affairs and Sports.
It is hard not to see this move as Manmohan Singh's attempt to signal that he is distancing himself from agendas with which Aiyar has been closely identified, including trans-Asia energy cooperation, joint ventures with China, and not least, the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline, which Washington "absolutely" opposes.
Manmohan Singh's decision is a measure of the distance he himself has travelled since last April. Then, at the 50th anniversary of the Afro-Asian Summit, Manmohan Singh emphasised the importance of ending Asia's and Africa's "anomalous" dependence on Western sources for the buying and selling of oil and gas. He said Asia and Africa "include both major producers and consumers of energy", but the pattern of energy trading "is determined elsewhere". Countering the West's effort to direct energy towards itself, away from its greatest emerging consumer - Asia - is a major and worthy task.
There could be no better way of doing this than to promote trans-Asia energy cooperation, including a gas-and-oil grid stretching Turkey to Japan. This is precisely what Mani Shankar Aiyar was doing. Manmohan Singh's U-turn on the Iran pipeline is equally significant. He publicly cast unreasonable doubts on its viability because of "investor risk" during his trip to Washington when he signed the nuclear cooperation deal with President George W. Bush. Since then, any number of U.S. leaders, including Senators, Congressmen, high-ranking officials all the way to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have linked India's stance on Iran with the success of the nuclear deal.
The message from Washington has long been loud and clear: India must choose between Iran, with its oil/gas and Ayatollahs, and the West, with its democracy and technology, including nuclear power. In other words, India must subordinate its freedom of choice on Iran to the nuclear agreement. It must vote to drag Iran before the Security Council. Or the nuclear deal will "die".
Mulford put this in an uncouth, blunt, and menacing way. Yet, the furore over his remarks had as much to do with the public's unease with any contraction of India's sovereign decision-making space regarding Iran, as with the timing, form, or violation of diplomatic norms.
Democratic governments which aspire to legitimacy cannot be indifferent either to the content or form of such statements and the political context they set. Sensitivity to this consideration demanded that Manmohan Singh should not have stripped Mani Shankar Aiyar of Petroleum Ministry especially if he wanted to avert giving the impression that he was acting under U.S. pressure, or out of an urge to please Washington. The impression is further strengthened by Deora's appointment. Deora is so closely identified with the U.S. that he is seen as a contact or liaison man by many. He himself makes no bones about his proximity to the U.S. or his intimacy with business houses, some with a major stake in petroleum.
That alone should have disqualified Deora from being given Petroleum: decent governments do not condone, even countenance, such conflict of interest. Some of Deora's earliest statements upon assuming charge confirm the suspicion that he will favour the private sector. He is unlikely to try to carve out a degree of energy independence for India vis-a-vis powerful multinational interests. The Iran pipeline is unlikely to materialise under his stewardship.
So Manmohan Singh will have achieved through a change of personnel what he could not have accomplished through a change of policy, which would be widely seen as dictated by Washington. This is not a healthy democratic precedent. Responsible, robustly democratic governance demands that parties in power debate policies and find broad consensual acceptance for them. They should not resort to devious back-door means by packing key posts with individuals with agendas that are at odds with the consensus. Manmohan Singh knows the pipeline is highly popular and enjoys the support of a wide spectrum of parties - unlike the nuclear deal, of which both the Left and the Right are critical, for different reasons.
Mani Shankar Aiyar's demotion must be seen in the larger context of mounting U.S. pressure on numerous issues, including intellectual property, industrial policy, and negotiations under the World Trade Organisation, as well as the recent aide memoire against India's purchase of a Syrian oilfield jointly with China. Mulford's meddlesome and gratuitous pronouncements in his January 25 interview were public and brazen. They pertained to all kinds of subjects, including the Left parties, retail trade, foreign policy, and separation of civilian nuclear facilities from military ones in ways acceptable to the U.S. Congress and to the Nuclear Suppliers' Group. There have been less public, but nevertheless official, forms of interference and virtual fatwas on other issues too, besides proffering of unsolicited advice. The government should disclose all these if it believes in transparency, as Manmohan Singh avows.
All things considered, the Manmohan Singh government is increasingly acting under Washington's pressure, much of it related to the nuclear deal. Or else, why has it abandoned even the pretence of an independent proactive policy on Iran after the September 24 vote at the International Atomic Energy Agency?
Going by its own assessment of Iran's nuclear activities, as detailed in the "Explanation of Vote" on the Ministry of External Affairs web site, it does not hold Iran to be non-compliant with its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations. Surely, New Delhi can take its own position against reporting Iran to the Security Council, and make original proposals for a diplomatic solution. But all it said until the February 2 IAEA meeting was that it would define its stand once the European Union-3 (Germany, France and Britain) circulated their resolution. This is a reactive and retrograde stance on a crisis which could soon acquire explosive proportions, even exceeding Iraq.
India's policy of tailing the U.S. and subordinating principle as well as important foreign and security policy considerations to the task of saving the nuclear deal speaks of a deplorable loss of sovereignty - more precisely, a voluntary surrender of sovereignty. Manmohan Singh cannot be unaware of this. He has made a conscious choice and decided that no price is too high to get India's nuclear arsenal "normalised" by the leader of the nuclear club, consisting of states that seek security through the ability to commit mass murder.
Manmohan Singh knows how to bend the knee. He probably believes that once you have decided to compromise on your sovereignty, it is futile to negotiate the details; just sign on the dotted line. Manmohan Singh did exactly that as Finance Minister in the early 1990s. In one instance, he did not even bother to change the American spelling on a document drafted for him by International Monetary Fund officials.
Manmohan Singh has refused to take a clear, categorical stand against allowing the condemned French warship Clemenceau to enter Indian waters. He has turned a blind eye to the collusive relationship between the Environment Ministry with France on the one hand, and the domestic toxic-waste and ship-breaking lobby, on the other. His government is going along with France's outrageous claim that the Basel Convention does not apply to "war material" - although the decommissioned warship does not even fit that description. Evidently, some other calculus is at work, including President Jacques Chirac's February 20 visit to India, and the promise of nuclear reactors and other deals, no doubt in "the national interest".
The French case on the Clemenceau is so egregiously illegal that even the European Union is investigating France's decision and considering legal proceedings (Financial Times, February 2). But Manmohan Singh's government will swallow all the illegality, the lying and the cheating - eventually to inflict grave toxic harm upon its own citizens.
Manmohan Singh has a strange concept of sovereignty. He was remarkably lenient on Mulford, despite his malfeasance - "to err is human". But he got so worked up at the U.S.' decision to deny a conference visa to Narendra Modi that he made a strong statement in Parliament. In this framework, Modi's privileges - after all, visa to a foreign land is not a right - count for more than India's autonomous policy-space.
This raises a question about the content of sovereignty. Sovereignty is partly, but not only, about parity among nations as regards their policy independence. Such sovereignty is no longer considered legitimate in its absolute form - as in the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648.
For instance, no nation has an absolute right to defend or promote its interests through mass-destruction weapons or by resorting to brutal, inhuman or degrading means. Nevertheless, the idea of basic national autonomy is important. Only Banana Republics or vassal-states surrender it. The Manmohan Singh government must be faulted for compromising on this issue.
A far more important notion of sovereignty relates it to the people, to citizens. It is not nations or governments that are sovereign, but the people. This means that in representative political systems, the people's right to decide things for themselves, and become arbiters of their own fate is inviolable. It cannot be abridged or surrendered to an external agency like a foreign government. That is a far more powerful argument against external interference than a nationalistic one. Manmohan Singh is guilty of encouraging such interference and voluntarily truncating us citizens' space for autonomous decision-making. Soon, the U.S. Ambassador to India will start being described in political discussions like his/her counterpart in Pakistan - as "The Viceroy".
Things were not always so dismal. Under Nehru, no foreign Ambassador would have dared to make public pronouncements of the kind that Mulford, or his recent predecessors such as Frank Wisner or Robert Blackwill did. Even under Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and V.P. Singh, envoys restrained themselves from appearing to be meddlesome. Things began changing tentatively under P.V. Narasimha Rao (but were reversed), and more decisively in the Vajpayee years.
Under the National Democratic Alliance rule, the U.S. Ambassador's visibility rose considerably, as well as the pitch of his demands - for instance, on compensating Enron with $2 billion to $3 billion for shutting down the plant, or on WTO negotiations. Lal Krishna Advani developed a special relationship with Blackwill and the two met on fixed days. The U.S. influence has considerably grown under Manmohan Singh.
A contrast with the Nehru period is enlightening. Ambassador J.K. Galbraith, himself a distinguished economist, had a close intellectual, professional and personal friendship with Nehru. But Nehru never let that interfere with his policy on critical issues of the day, such as the Sino-Indian conflict, Berlin, or the Cuban missile crisis. As Galbraith records in his book Ambassador's Journal (Hamish Hamilton, London, 1969), he was respectful not just of India's fierce pride in her policy independence, but also of Nehru's personal preferences and predilections - for instance, again ostentatious celebrations by foreign missions.
A litmus test came in 1961, when the State Department seriously considered "anticipatory action pending Chinese Communist demonstration of a nuclear capability" by providing active assistance in nuclear weapons technology to India as a counterweight to a nuclear China. In a recently declassified document, the State Department lays out its reasoning at length, including the likely psychological and political impact of a Chinese test, then considered probable.
It argues that it would be best if India could be helped to develop and detonate a bomb before China: "While we would like to limit the number of nuclear powers, so long as we lack the capability to do so, we ought to prefer that the first Asian one be India and not China." (For details, see my book with Achin Vanaik, South Asia on a Short Fuse: Nuclear Politics and the Future of Global Disarmament, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2001.)
But, says the memo, "the idea has also been discussed with Ambassador Galbraith, who is strongly opposed to any U.S. approach to Nehru. He thinks the chances are roughly only one out of 50 that Nehru's reaction would not be the negative one that we are seeking India as an atomic ally." Galbraith refused even to discuss the issue with Nehru, who was firmly opposed not just to India going nuclear, but to seeking covert security assistance of this kind from the U.S.
Contrast this with Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran's recent disquisition on how India cannot be ignored as a balancer of power in Asia vis-a-vis China - an invitation or enticement offered to Washington for "strategic partnership". (Shyam Saran's address at India Economic Summit, New Delhi, November 28, 2005.) With such notions of security and national self-importance, we might as well forget about sovereignty, especially popular sovereignty.
Manmohan Singh must be put on notice. He can only surrender sovereignty on pain of losing parliamentary support. The Left and its centrist allies should tell him so.
Praful Bidwai, a fellow of the Transnational Institute, is a senior Indian journalist, political activist and widely published commentator. He is a co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament.