By BRAHMA CHELLANEY
The Japan Times
NEW DELHI — Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s political future has come under a cloud over a controversial civil nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States that has helped isolate his party in Parliament.
At the root of the crisis is Singh’s insistence that Parliament has no role in completing an international pact other than to be merely informed about it.
Singh’s Congress Party holds only 26 percent of the seats in the ruling lower house of Parliament and runs a wobbly coalition government with the help of a number of smaller parties, including a leftist bloc that has now come out openly against the nuclear deal.
Singh bears much of the blame for his deep political trouble. When he signed the original agreement-in-principle with U.S. President George W. Bush in July 2005, he caught his country by surprise but promised to reach out to political parties and build a national consensus in favor of the deal, seen as unduly impinging on India’s strategic autonomy.
Instead, through a public-relations blitzkrieg, Singh has consistently sought to spin reality to suit political ends and blocked Parliament from scrutinizing the deal. As a result, opposition has steadily built up against a deal that has a bearing on the symbol of India’s pride and independence — its nuclear program.
The present crisis has been triggered by a followup bilateral nuclear agreement — required not by international law but by Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act. Although the accord was concluded July 23, its text was not publicly released until Aug. 3 to allow the government to use the interregnum to soften public opinion through selective leaks to the media.
That strategy has not only failed, but some of Singh’s own remarks have helped generate a political storm that his handlers are now seeking to hold back. Singh first mocked his leftist allies’ opposition to the deal, asking them to like it or lump it. He then declared on the eve of a new session of Parliament: "The deal is signed and sealed. It is not renegotiable."
If the so-called 123 agreement was already "signed and sealed" and not "renegotiable," the message he conveyed to Parliament was that it could do little more than be a spectator. Yet the same agreement cannot take effect until the U.S. Congress has examined and approved it through a joint resolution of both chambers. In fact, the U.S. Congress even has the right to attach conditions to this agreement — a right it exercised in 1985 on a nuclear deal with China, delaying its implementation by almost 13 years.
Indeed, the U.S.-India deal has served as a striking reminder of the need for the world’s most populous democracy to improve its public accountability and oversight.
It is precisely due to the anemic checks and balances in the Indian system that a prime minister, who uniquely came to office without winning a single popular election in his entire political career, has escaped legislative scrutiny of his actions at home even as he has expended Indian taxpayers’ money on lobbying American members of Congress to pass the necessary enabling U.S. legislation on the deal. That legislation, enacted last December and known as the Hyde Act, in fact, has inflamed Indian public opinion because of the long list of conditions it attaches to nuclear-energy cooperation.
Singh is the latest in a series of septuagenarians and octogenarians who have led India since 1989 but, unlike his predecessors, has no grassroots base. A technocrat who served as finance minister in the first half of the 1990s, Singh became prime minister in 2004 by accident when Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi declined to assume that office and nominated him instead.
The nuclear deal has spurred national demands that the Indian Constitution — one of the most-amended constitutions in the world — be changed to make parliamentary ratification mandatory for any international agreement or treaty to take effect. It does not redound to the credit of Indian democracy that the executive has an untrammeled right to conclude and ratify international pacts without parliamentary approval.
Singh’s effort to present the deal as a fait accompli to the national legislature also raises a basic issue: Even if Parliament has no right to ratify an international pact, doesn’t it at least have the right to dissect its clauses and offer an advisory opinion?
But if India’s first nominated prime minister has his way, Parliament will have no role to play other than hold an academic debate on any of the arrangements that are being worked out under the deal, including the 123 agreement with the U.S. and an upcoming safeguards-related accord with the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency.
Singh affirms that he has "kept Parliament fully in the picture at various stages of our negotiations with the United States" by making "several statements." But the question is whether statements made by the prime minister in Parliament should merely convey what has been agreed to and signed, or comply with the will of the legislature.
The deal raises weighty issues, given that India is assuming perpetual, legally immutable obligations that are to remain in force (including IAEA safeguards on its entire civil nuclear program) even if the U.S. exercised its right to suspend or terminate cooperation.
Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research, is the author, among others, of "Nuclear Proliferation: The U.S.-India Conflict."