Nuclear deal reveals India's fragile democracy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 July, 2008, 12:00am
 

India's parliament has voted to go ahead with the Indo-US nuclear deal. It allows Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to develop a stable energy source for some of the world's poorest people and simultaneously shatters the west's policy of 'nuclear apartheid'. But the politics of the vote reveal that Indian democracy is threatened by big business and corruption.

Allegations have surfaced that all major parties tried to buy rival parliamentarians. The going rate? US$3 million. Members of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party emptied bags of money - on camera and in parliament - with which they claim Dr Singh's Congress tried to bribe them. Some dismissed the bags and notes as a plant. Either way, the furore struck a chord: daily life in India is saturated with small acts of corruption. A full investigation has been ordered.

Incontestable, however, was industry's attempt to capitalise on political instability to push its own agenda. In a desperate bid to ensure he had a majority, Dr Singh enlisted the support of the regional Samajwadi party, whose leader, Amar Singh, controls the vote of more than 30 MPs.

After offering his support, Amar Singh demanded a measure to cripple one of the two warring Ambani brothers who represent India's most powerful industrial family. Clearly, Amar Singh was in cahoots with one brother against the other, who controls India's largest private oil refinery. In brief, the plan assumed that increases in consumer fuel prices translated into higher profits for oil companies. Amar Singh therefore wanted a windfall tax on these supposed profits, ignoring the fact that increases in consumers' fuel bills reflect the dramatic rise of international crude prices. Warning of the attempt by big business to encroach on politics, Dr Singh rejected the gambit.

It is precisely to safeguard India's poor from the clutches of big business that Dr Singh pushed the nuclear deal. His efforts have another consequence - the dismantling of the 'nuclear apartheid' practised by the west for decades. At the heart of the international nuclear framework is the Non-Proliferation Treaty which, writes Hugh Gusterson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the 'legal anchor for a global nuclear regime increasingly legitimated in racialised terms'.

The west arbitrarily decided that any state which had tested a nuclear weapon before 1970 was entitled to nuclear technology. It meant the Great Powers were free to stockpile weapons, while poor countries were barred from harnessing the atom for peaceful purposes.

It took a first-time parliamentarian to remind his Indian colleagues of the rationale for the deal. Rahul Gandhi, scion of three prime ministers, recounted in grim detail the lives of people whose only source of energy is manure which, when dried, can be burned. Mr Gandhi grew up in luxury, but his knowledge comes from extensive tours of the hinterland. If democracy is to survive in India, his colleagues will also have to get back to basics.

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

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