Singh gets nuclear deal despite the horse trading

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 July, 2008, 12:00am

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took his coalition government to the edge of the political abyss last week in an attempt to go ahead with the heavily contested Indo-US nuclear co-operation agreement. He emerged victorious, but it is perturbing that a matter on which hinges the energy-security of some of the most deprived people in the world should be debased to the extent of being decided by the horse trading that India's head count politics entails.

Dr Singh handled the complex game of brinkmanship with a mettle few thought he possessed. He faced the triple challenge of Communist partners who give him a parliamentary majority, his own Congress party hankering for power at any price, and an opposition jealous of the political capital the ruling coalition will make if the agreement is activated.

The Communists, indoctrinated in an ideology unthinkingly transplanted in Asia with disastrous effects for millions, object on ideological grounds because the agreement will forge links with the United States. Compounding matters were elements of Dr Singh's Congress party who, faced with an ultimatum to drop the nuclear agreement or lose the left's support, preferred to sacrifice energy security for the sake of a few more months in power.

Elections are due early next year and if the Communists pull the rug now, Dr Singh may have to go to the polls sooner. He responded by announcing he was going to resign if his party did not rise to the left's challenge. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Congress backed him and negotiated with other parties for parliamentary support.

The opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which initiated the negotiations when it was in power, was unwilling to talk, not because it opposes the deal but because it wants the credit for clinching it. Instead of supporting and seeing through what is actually a vision that crosses party-political lines, the BJP hopes to return to power in the next elections - and take the glory.

Dr Singh turned to the middle-of-the-road Samajwadi Party to offset the imminent loss of Communist votes. The new alliance gives a majority of four - slight, but enough to proceed with discussions with the IAEA about India-specific safeguards and engage the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The US has been shepherding India's talks with both. Once completed, India will become a participant in the worldwide commerce of nuclear technology and materials. It will be the crowning glory of Dr Singh's term as prime minister.

That an agreement with so much at stake was almost scuppered displays the poverty of vision that characterises Indian politics. It was not always so. As finance minister in 1991, Dr Singh and former prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao did not bring to cabinet the package of economic reforms that set India rolling on the path of free choice and prosperity.

They feared alarmist newspaper headlines and a hue and cry by parliamentarians committed to western academic theories. Instead, they discussed the proposals with the leader of the opposition, Lal Krishna Advani, who blessed the programme.

It was this type of bipartisan consensus that enabled Britain to face the enemy confidently during the second world war. Cynics might suggest that the BJP co-operated in 1991 because it saw no prospect of forming an alternate government. It is different in 2008 with elections around the corner. While power calculations are as natural to a political party as spots to a leopard, it would be unfair to dismiss the commitment to principles that drove Mr Advani in 1991.

Many Indians expected him to display the same commitment in 2008 and live up to Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle's verdict that 'conviction is worthless unless it is converted into conduct'. Dr Singh has done so though India's chattering classes doubted if a prime minister who has never fought an election would have the courage to do so.

Deep Kisor Datta-Ray is a London-based historian and commentator on Asian affairs.