A corrupt deal pushed corruptly
Covert magazine, August 16-31, 2008
Those who egged on the prime minister to take the nuclear deal to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board even if it meant breaking the governing alliance didn’t have much to do: Manmohan Singh himself led the charge. With his V signs for the media cameras, Singh took the lead to survive the confidence vote in Parliament by hook or by crook.
That the government triumphed by winning over or neutralizing a number of opposition MPs through various illicit inducements now hangs as a national shame — a stigma that will haunt Singh forever and undermine his leadership during his remainder months in office. The subsequent terrorist bombings in Bangalore and Ahmedabad, and the popular uprising in the Jammu region, have helped reinforce the image of a weak, irresolute prime minister fixated on one issue, to the detriment of a balanced, forward-looking approach on advancing national interests.
When history is written, Singh will be remembered for the two nasty surprises he sprung on the nation, not for his legacy in continuing high GDP growth. The first was the nuclear deal whose “final draft came to me from the U.S. side”, as he confessed in Lok Sabha on August 3, 2005, after he had already reached Washington in July 2005, without any nuclear scientist in his delegation. And the other was his action, on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, in turning Indian policy on its head by embracing Pakistan as a fellow victim of and joint partner against terror — a blunder that brought more deadly attacks scripted by the Pakistani intelligence. Both the nuclear deal and the joint anti-terror mechanism were the product not of institutional thinking but of personal caprice.
The imports-oriented nuclear deal centres on big bucks, with exporters hoping for a windfall and importers looking forward to commissions and kickbacks. If the deal takes effect, India, over the next two decades, is likely to spend more than $100 billion expanding its national-power capacity, according to Ron Somers, president of the Washington-based U.S.-India Business Council. Such spending would not only help revive the moribund U.S. nuclear-power industry, but also bring billions of dollars worth of business to European, Russian and Japanese firms. The deal additionally comes with auxiliary understandings, including on U.S. arms exports to India. It is such interests that have helped lubricate a deal whose very rationale is fundamentally flawed: Generating electricity from high-priced imported reactors dependent on foreign fuel makes little economic or strategic sense.
Against that background, it should come as no surprise that a corrupt deal has been pushed corruptly. In fact, never before in independent India’s history has a major strategic issue been pushed in such a blatantly partisan way — with no regard to solemn promises made in Parliament. Such has been Singh’s partisan doggedness that, unlike for instance on the Jammu-agitation issue, he never called an all-party meeting on the deal, despite pledging in Parliament to “seek the broadest possible consensus within the country to enable the next steps to be taken”.
With Singh repeatedly acquiescing to goalpost shifting, the deal has acquired more and more conditions at every step of a still-continuing process. The civil-military “Separation Plan”, the Hyde Act, the so-called 123 Agreement and the latest IAEA safeguards accord have helped change the original terms, seeking to firmly tether India to the U.S.-led international non-proliferation regime in order to tame its nuclear waywardness. The way has been cleared to draft India into the NPT as a de facto party. Today, Singh’s pledges to Parliament stand belied, including that India will accept only the “same responsibilities and obligations as other advanced nuclear states like the U.S.”, that it will get “the same rights and benefits” as the U.S., and that it will “never accept discrimination”.
In that light, it is predictable that the deal would attract more grating conditions as it traverses the final two stages — clearances from the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group and the U.S. Congress. The U.S. ambassador has publicly dismissed India’s demand for an unconditional NSG clearance as “provocative”. In fact, India’s position has been undermined from within, with the prime minister’s irrepressible special envoy, Shyam Saran, terming as “unrealistic” the demand that the NSG put no condition, not even a test ban. When the new conditions come, you can be certain that Singh and his handlers would spin reality to present the outcome as another “victory” for India.
Brahma Chellaney is Professor of Strategic Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.