It is tempting to look at the substance of Manmohan Singh’s reply in the Rajya Sabha on Thursday to the discussion on the Indo-US nuclear deal and, in the process, forget that the prime minister’s handling of the nuclear controversy in recent weeks represents a turning point in India’s political evolution. For half a century, or at any rate for four decades after Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s death, successive executives on Raisina Hill have dealt with India’s elected representatives in both Houses in the adjoining Parliament House as rubber stamps or worse. Singh’s comprehensive approach to civilian nuclear energy cooperation between India and the United States of America, outlined on Thursday, and his unambiguous assurances in the Rajya Sabha on that day will be remembered by chroniclers of India’s democratic conventions and traditions for the manner in which the prime minister restored the dignity and role of parliament, the erosion of which was ironically wrought by his own party.
Last Thursday was also a landmark because of the way the left parties conducted themselves in parliament, and outside in the run up to the Rajya Sabha discussion. This made it possible to have a substantive engagement between the executive and the legislature on an issue which will have a lasting impact on India’s standing in the world. In a demonstration of the maturity of the Indian political system, once Singh offered to clear the doubts about his deal with George W. Bush, the left parties acted with uncharacteristic responsibility, which allowed the prime minister to fulfil his part of the bargain. The country is better off for this.
The events leading to Thursday’s outcome have demonstrated that professionals can, indeed, play their part in securing the country’s future even when the quality of elected representatives leaves much to be desired. The scientists — who individually and collectively took their firm positions on the pros and cons of the nuclear deal as it was evolving after the US House of Representatives vote in June — have seen to that.
The result of all this is a clear message, which was overdue in the environment after Bush’s visit to India in March: India is not for sale. It is hard to tell who is more disappointed by this message. There were those abroad who thought that India could be bought and many in India who banked on being able to sell out the country. If Bush ever thought of calling out to the prime minister “Yo Singh” (as he did to Britain’s Tony Blair at the St. Petersburg G-8 summit, which the world heard on account of an open microphone), he will now have second thoughts on that score.
On Monday, the first full working day in the August-holiday-bound-Washington after the Rajya Sabha debate, this columnist and several others in the media who write about strategic issues received a document entitled an “Update on the US-India Nuclear Cooperation Agreement”. The author of the update, a friend for more than a decade, is also one of those leading the fight in Washington to kill the Indo-US nuclear deal.
His e-mail update expressed amazement that “the strenuous opposition within India to the proposed US-India nuclear cooperation agreement is perplexing to those who have concluded that the US Congress and the Bush administration have been extraordinarily generous to India. The extent of Washington’s generosity has now been called into question by New Delhi.”
At the root of the problems that are now confronting the Singh-Bush deal, which was full of good intentions on both sides on July 18, 2005, is the conviction, even among some decision-makers in Washington, that the right to be “generous” to other nations on issues like nuclear power is the divine right of the world’s sole remaining super power. In fact, it is precisely this attitude in Washington, which is putting Iran’s back up and making it that much more difficult for a proud civilization like Iran’s to make any compromise on the nuclear question.
This attitude is reminiscent of the question that Helen Thomas, the doyenne of White House correspondents, used to repeatedly ask Bill Clinton’s spokesman when Clinton let it be known that he wanted to visit India. Thomas used to ask: Why are “we” rewarding the Indians with a presidential visit after they tested a bomb' Rewarding India' With a visit by a US president' Decolonization is no longer a political issue, but it continues to be a behavioural issue in Western capitals.
The prime minister must be trusted not only because of the sanctity of his solemn commitments made to parliament, but also because of the significance of some of his references to the US that are unrelated to the nuclear issue. Because the issue on the table on Thursday was the nuclear deal, it was lost on the nation that Singh revealed in the Rajya Sabha that he plainly told Bush in New Delhi in March that the US invasion of Iraq was a mistake: “I said India does not find favour with regime change.”
Such a statement has a significance that goes well beyond Iraq. There are well-respected, well-informed people in the US who believe that Israel’s bombing spree of Lebanon was a dress rehearsal for a similar US attack on Iran with the intention of regime change in Tehran. Without saying it in so many words, Singh has let it be known that India is not for any change in government in Tehran through force from without. The Americans want to overthrow Bashar Assad’s government in Damascus too. With his statement against “regime change”, Singh has implicitly rejected an American démarche, which called upon India to end energy-related collaboration with Assad’s government in Damascus.
A source of major concern in recent months has been the nagging chance that India may agree to the Washington-initiated Proliferation Security Initiative to physically interdict ships and stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction. New Delhi has come under increasing pressure from the Bush administration to join the initiative. Giving in to that pressure could have meant that one day India would have been required to board a Chinese ship carrying missile parts to North Korea, for example, putting the two countries on the road to a conflict. The prime minister said in the Rajya Sabha not only that there was no linkage between the PSI and the nuclear deal, but also that “the government has examined the PSI. We have certain concerns regarding its legal implications.”
At the start of the discussion in the Rajya Sabha, there were fears that the government’s credibility would be at stake. But by Thursday night, the biggest casualty was the credibility of some leading opinion-makers and strategic analysts, for whom anything that was spun out of the US embassy in Chanakyapuri and the state department in Washington was the gospel truth. Repeatedly, in pause after pause during his reply, the prime minister confirmed what these spin doctors for America were attempting to challenge and discredit.
Other developments too may have helped the prime minister in regaining the traditional balance in Indian foreign policy. In recent weeks, Iran has demonstrated, through its subtle moves, that New Delhi needs Tehran much more than the other way round. At the same time, the war in Lebanon has once again shown the limits of overwhelming force, a lesson for both Israel and the US. While Tel Aviv and Washington digest the meaning of this lesson, Singh has decided that he has room for greater manoeuvre in foreign policy.