| M.K. Narayanan and Ronen Sen during discussions to finalize the Indo-US nuclear deal, July 2007
It is tempting to hope that the furore over the so-called 123 agreement will result in an examination and clarification of both India’s nuclear aims and Indian attitudes to the United States of America. But both sides are so mired in obfuscation on both points that the heat of argument may shed no light at all on an aspect of life that exposes us to ridicule if not contempt.
What must be unambiguously stated at the outset is that most Indians would trust Manmohan Singh to safeguard the nation’s interest and dignity rather than Prakash Karat. Secondly, Left Front obstructiveness must be a cause of great glee in Beijing, since it is possible that China will be spared the awkwardness of striking a dissonant note when the Nuclear Suppliers Group meets, as it is scheduled to do next May unless the US calls an earlier extraordinary meeting. With friends like the Left Front, India needs no enemies.
No position can be taken at face value. Left Front members will go on posturing about the dangers of being drawn into America’s strategic embrace while its stellar characters play footsie with the US. I have mentioned before the Marxist mayor who approached the American consul-general to twin Calcutta with San Francisco so that he could officially visit his son who was studying there. Many more such instances of duplicity can be cited. Across the divide, the government will go on talking about nuclear energy. Nobody knows better that this is not what the Pokhran bangs were all about, but it’s the fig leaf the government hopes the Americans will mistake for an olive branch. In the US, the Congress, Democrat or Republican, will continue to talk about safeguards and conditions when what it really wants is to roll back and cap India’s nuclear capability.
George W. Bush’s administration is more practical. As his Asia Society speech on the eve of his Indian visit made clear, Americans need India’s expanding market for everything from washing machines to hamburgers. In foreign policy, Bush seeks an Asian ally other than Japan to not contain — that is too crudely physical — but balance the rising might of China. The role has been waiting for India since 1949, and Bush is willing to pay a price for belated acceptance (of course, with continued and profuse denials). That is what Ronen Sen was able to cash in on, painstakingly striking an equilibrium between the least India can accept and the most the US president, who has his own domestic pressures to contend with, will concede. As the national security adviser, M.K. Narayanan, says, the treaty “is as good a text as one can possibly get”.
It’s only the lay public at home that has no time for any of this subterfuge or shadow-boxing. Senior officials have to rationalize their instinct because they can hardly admit they are pro-US because, as Kunwar Natwar Singh puts it, eight out of 10 Indian diplomats have children there. Others are waiting for the coveted green card. Even those millions whose need is only for a ration card and who have no complexes about the US are mesmerized by the prospect of raw power. Pokhran released their exuberance because there was no pussyfooting in 1998 about energy. It was unambiguously admitted that the tests would provide a “valuable data base — useful in the design of nuclear weapons — of different yields, different applications and different delivery systems” for our scientists. Moreover, they were designed to cover the full spectrum of nuclear weapons including fission and fusion (hydrogen/ thermonuclear) bombs and a sub kiloton (miniature) nuclear explosive device, and to generate data for “improved computer simulation”.
It has fallen to Manmohan Singh’s lot to have to reconcile all these disparate trends. A columnist with no executive responsibility can take a moral stand and declare that accepting American conditions would be tantamount to endorsing a hegemony that is all the more repugnant for being exercised by a country with Asian — Korean, Vietnamese, Afghan, Iraqi — blood on its hands. It becomes suspect when a practising politician says so unless he is prepared to carry his principles to their logical extreme and shun all — not selective — things American.
But those who have to cater to the present and future welfare of over a billion Indians are denied the luxury of such indulgence. They must take note of the popular mood which favours (for whatever base reason) a linkage with the American Dream. Their decisions must serve India’s security, economic and technological needs and the aspirations of the Indian people. They must end the sanctions that deny India sophisticated technology and fuel and exclude it from a specialized global marketplace. If such supping calls for an exceptionally long spoon, that, too, must be suffered, though few Indians will regard it as suffering.
India’s vote against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency had a precedent: though I.K. Gujral as external affairs minister during Operation Desert Shield refused to echo American diatribes against Saddam Hussein, near-bankrupt India voted with the US every time after the Americans cut off aid to Yemen for not supporting the coalition at the United Nations. These are harsh lessons that a prime minister cannot ignore.
Perhaps the agreement falls short of the ideal by placing curbs on the exercise of India’s sovereign authority. But then, there was a time when in the flush of idealistic nationhood, India spurned the chance of being the first Asian country with the bomb. Idealism was trimmed in 1974 to meet one set of realities; it must be trimmed further to accommodate the consequences of our initial naiveté and adjust to another set of realities — this time the lone superpower’s bargaining clout and the strong views of some of the NSG’s 45 members — since we will gain something from the compromise.
The government’s real failure lies in not selling that with vigour and conviction. There was an element of necessary stealth about the 1991 economic reforms but P.V. Narasimha Rao’s astute management saved the day. Instead of taking the Congress rank and file into confidence, he and Singh discussed their plans with Lal Krishna Advani. Lest anyone question the legitimacy of liberalization, they also dug out Rajiv Gandhi’s election manifesto which promised inter alia to replace a “lethargic, inefficient and expensive” public sector with one that was “leaner, more dynamic and profit-oriented”.
The obvious course now is to agree on specific safeguards with the IAEA next month, seal a deal with the NSG (where Nicholas Burns, the US under-secretary of state, has promised his good offices) and wait for the US Congress to accept both. Alternatively, if India just sits on the deal as the Left Front demands, it might as well kill it. The status of nuclear pariah would force the programme to go underground. And, worst of all, abandoning the treaty under pressure would proclaim to the world that there is no government in New Delhi.
Beyond that, the longer-term psychology of India’s complex about the US recalls William B. Saxbe, the US ambassador in the Seventies, saying, “When I call on cabinet ministers, the president, or governors, they all love to talk about their sons, sons-in-law and daughters in the US and how well they’re doing and how well they like things. The next day I read in the papers the very same people are denouncing the US as a totally different kind of country.”
Those were the bleak years of the foreign hand. Even then, however, the hand was to be shunned in public and warmly clasped in private. By reconciling public protestation with private practice, Manmohan Singh’s initiative promises to end a dichotomy that invites scorn. But the Left Front sees greater dividend in the ambiguity of dissimulation.