Why nuclear deal with the U.S. has kicked up a political storm in India

N-deal must be debated
Times of India, August 30, 2007
 
Brahma Chellaney

 

As finance minister during 1991-95, Manmohan Singh drastically slashed funding to the nuclear power programme, disabling new projects and halting uranium exploration. But as prime minister, Singh has become such a fervent advocate of importing high-priced reactors for electricity that he has brought his own political future under a cloud.

At the root of the crisis is Singh’s insistence that Parliament has no role on the bilateral agreement with the US other than to be merely informed about it. That is odd. As New Delhi discovered in the late 1970s when the US walked out from a similar but more India-protective agreement, such an accord has no force under the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. After all, this agreement is required not by international law, but by Section 123 of a US law. And unlike last time, the agreement now is governed by a specially enacted US law, which stipulates a series of good-behaviour conditions for India to meet. Can Parliament acquiesce to India being put at the mercy of the supplier?

Instead of building a broad national consensus, Singh, sadly, has sought to spin reality to suit political ends, blocking Parliament since 2005 from closely scrutinising the deal. Little surprise then that opposition has steadily built up against a deal that has a bearing on the symbol of India’s pride and independence — its nuclear programme. Contrast this picture with the bipartisan support the White House was able to garner for the deal and its enabling legislation, the Hyde Act.

At every stage, New Delhi has been far less transparent than Washington, with Indians getting to know the various concessions and conditions from US briefings or statements. And although the nuclear accord was concluded on July 23, its text inexcusably was not released until August 3 to allow New Delhi to use the interregnum to soften public opinion through deceptive leaks to the media.

 
That strategy has not only backfired, but some of Singh’s own remarks have helped generate a political storm that his handlers are now seeking to control largely through disingenuous spin. The PM first mocked his Leftist allies’ opposition to the deal, asking them to like it or lump it. He then declared on the eve of the Parliament session: "The deal is signed and sealed. It is not renegotiable".

If the nuclear agreement is not "renegotiable", that means Parliament can be little more than a spectator. Yet the same agreement, paradoxically, cannot take effect until the US Congress has examined and approved it through a joint resolution of both chambers. Indeed, the US Congress has explicitly reserved its right to attach conditions to the nuclear agreement — a right it exercised in 1985 on a nuclear deal with China, delaying its implementation by 13 years.

The deal is 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 anaemic checks and balances in the Indian system that a PM, who came to office without winning a single popular election in his political career, has escaped legislative scrutiny of his actions at home even as he has expended Indian taxpayers’ money on lobbying members of the US Congress to pass the necessary enabling legislation — the infamous Hyde Act.

Is it thus any surprise that the 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 hardly goes to the credit of Indian democracy that the executive has an untrammelled right to conclude and ratify international pacts without parliamentary approval.

Even if Parliament has no right to ratify an international accord, doesn’t it at least have the right to dissect its clauses and offer an advisory opinion? If India’s first nominated PM has his way, Parliament will have no role to play other than hold an academic debate on arrangements under the deal.

 
The writer is a strategic affairs analyst.
 
Copyright: Times of India, 2007 
 
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