Business Standard, 28th Aug 07
It is no secret that the global nuclear architecture, like that of the other post World War 2 institutions --- the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions --- was constructed with building blocks of hypocrisy and discrimination. Forked tongues, double standards and an unrelenting zero-sum outlook have long been mandatory for those at the high table to fiercely resist any change to the status quo. It would be expected, therefore, that any attempt to elevate India from the ranks of the nuclear have-nots would arouse heated opposition.
It has. Few bilateral agreements have as many opponents as the draft US-India 123 Agreement. Surprisingly, though, the opposition is not from traditional quarters. Four of the five Bedouins inside the tent are opening the flap for the Indian camel, with China being the lone dissenter. Non-proliferation hardliners of long standing --- Japan and Australia amongst them --- have tacitly given India the wink. Serious opposition to the deal comes from three quarters: doctrinal (from the non-proliferation hardliners, inside the US and elsewhere), geo-strategic (predominantly Pakistan and China), and political (opposition parties in India, particularly the BJP and the Left).
The ferocity of opposition within India was to be expected, considering the sharp political polarisation within India and the high stakes involved; the government that swings the deal will gain economically, politically and in the public perception. Tempering the opposition, though, is the political embarrassment that stems from the alignment of forces. When the BJP looks around the battlefield, it sees China and Pakistan as its foot soldiers and its sworn enemy, the Left, as its sword arm. For the Left, being perceived as China's proxy is equally embarrassing, especially once the masses are reminded that the Left accused India of aggression against China in 1962 and opposed the Quit India movement in 1942. Acting in concert with the "communal forces" is another dichotomy for the Left. That's why the Marxists flatly rejected Mr Advani's invitation to coordinate opposition to the deal.
Being an anti-dealer is made even more complicated by the verbal callisthenics needed to square their opposition with long-held ideological and political positions. The Left, a passionate votary of global nuclear disarmament and an opponent of India's nuclear tests, now finds itself defending "India's sovereign right to test". The BJP, which could credibly claim to have fathered the nuclear deal, as well as India's new engagement with the US, finds itself walking a verbal tightrope between supporting the US on the one hand and slamming the deal on the other; and between Mr Vajpayee's unilateral moratorium on testing on the one hand, and the party's rejection of the UPA's "strategic subservience" on the other.
But the greatest constraint on the anti-dealers, the BJP and the Left, is the dismaying prospect of general elections if the government goes down with the deal. The CPI (M) politburo was jolted off its high horse during the Central Committee meeting last week, when party representatives from Kerala and West Bengal made it clear that they would lose considerable ground in any election today. The division between Marxist ideologues and practitioners has reached the point where the latter, their ideology ground away by the dust of the electoral battlefield, have begun accusing politburo ideologues like Prakash Karat of behaving like the Taliban. Karat's brave exhortation that ideology is more important than seat-count has been scoffed at by those who stand to lose the seats.
The BJP is readying for elections anyway. Mr Advani's trial balloon, floated in Hyderabad on Sunday, distances the BJP from the Left Front. Unlike the Left's ideological hostility to the US, Advani is portraying his party as more open to Washington by suggesting a way for the BJP to back the 123 Agreement. He has proposed that the offending US legislation, the Henry Hyde Act of 2006, could be countered by an amendment to the Indian Atomic Energy Act. Advani, well schooled at the ballots if not in strategy, has read the writing on the wall: the Indian public is not hostile to the US. And the BJP will have a hard time explaining to voters why it acted in concert with "the communists" (they really mean China) to pull down an American deal to bring more electricity to India.
The Congress' failure to build consensus around the 123 Agreement --- particularly Dr Manmohan Singh's planted comment that "if the government falls, so be it" ---- is a reality check on its ability to run a coalition. It also points to the difficulties that lie ahead when India negotiates a settlement with Pakistan, and a solution to the border dispute with China.
Lack of consensus can be a positive factor during the course of protracted negotiations. It was the lack of consensus in India that created the environment for India to extract from the US astonishingly favourable terms in the 123 Agreement. But every debate must find closure and India's polity has failed in recent years to reach an agreement on any issue except populist no-brainers like OBC quotas or on legislating higher pay scales for themselves.
The week ahead is a critical one; parliament will debate the 123 Agreement. And if our leaders can rise above partisan politics, the country may be spared early elections that practically nobody wants, and from which at least two of the protagonists will emerge seriously weakened.