How the Indian prime minister broke his promises to Parliament

Parliament Ambushed


New Delhi has embraced a nuclear deal with no binding fuel-supply assurance; no operational reprocessing right; no permission to build strategic fuel reserves; no entitlement to take corrective measures; and no escape hatch from legal obligations. Worse, solemn commitments to Parliament stand jettisoned.


Brahma Chellaney

The Asian Age, October 15, 2008 


Do promises made to Parliament have no sanctity? With the government hastily signing the flawed 123 Agreement with the US last weekend, it is important to recall Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s assurances that after having completed the negotiating process, he would bring the nuclear deal to Parliament and “abide” by its decision. But no sooner had the process been over than Singh proceeded to sign the 123 Agreement while sidelining Parliament.


This is what Singh had pledged in the Lok Sabha during the brief July session marred by the cash-for-votes scandal: “All I had asked our Left colleagues was: please allow us to go through the negotiating process and I will come to Parliament before operationalising the nuclear agreement. This simple courtesy which is essential for orderly functioning of any government worth the name, particularly with regard to the conduct of foreign policy, they were not willing to grant me”.


Earlier, at a June 30 book-release function at his official residence, Singh had elaborated on his pledge: “I have said it before, I will repeat it again, that you allow us to complete the process. Once the process is over, I will bring it before Parliament and abide by the House”.


Lest there be any ambiguity, he expanded: “I am not asking for something that the government should not be doing. I am only saying you allow me to complete the negotiations. I agree to come to Parliament before I proceed to operationalise. What can be more reasonable than this?” He then added: “All that I want is the authority to proceed with the process of negotiations through all the stages… If Parliament feels you have done some wrong, so be it”.


Singh had repeatedly promised to take Parliament into confidence before formalizing the deal. For instance, way back on March 10, 2006, he said in the Lok Sabha: “There should be no reason for anyone to doubt that anything will be done at the back of Parliament, or that we will do anything which would hurt the interests of the country as a whole”.


But that is precisely what he did — sign the 123 Agreement behind Parliament’s back, to the extent that he skipped its traditional monsoon session, setting a precedent that could be detrimental to the future of Indian democracy.  Now any future government can skip a session of Parliament — or two — besides turning its back on the solemn promises it made to the legislative body.


The contrast between Singh and President George W. Bush in the way they handled the deal could not have been starker. From the time he introduced a legislative-waiver bill in March 2006 to last week’s signing ceremony, Bush worked in a spirit of bipartisanship, forging an impressive political consensus at home.


The Hyde Act was the product of such consensus-building and political co-option, with the administration holding closed-door briefings for lawmakers and allowing its three-and-a-half-page bill to be expanded to a 41-page litany of India-specific conditions. Bipartisan support also was the key to the recent passage of the ratification legislation, the “US-India Nuclear Cooperation Approval and Non-Proliferation Enhancement Act”, which imposes Hyde Act-plus obligations on India.


After the Senate approved this Hyde Act-plus legislation on October 1, Bush said: “I commend the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for their leadership in crafting this important bipartisan legislation”. The bipartisanship was on full display at the October 8 White House ceremony, when Bush signed that legislation into law in the presence of Democratic and Republican leaders.


By contrast, Singh’s approach was blatantly partisan, subordinating national interest to personal agenda. Although the deal has divided India like no other strategic issue since independence, Singh did not hold a single all-party meeting on the subject ever since he sprung the accord as a surprise on the nation in 2005. However, he was quick to hold more than one all-party meeting on the parallel summertime agitations that wracked Jammu and the Kashmir Valley.


In the long, tortuous process of deal-making, he went from one stage to the next by relying on a supine national media to help create a juggernaut of “inevitability”. At the same time, he meretriciously kept assuring the nation that he would build a broad political consensus.


Just two days after signing the agreement-in-principle on July 18, 2005, he said: “It goes without saying that we can move forward only on the basis of a broad national consensus”. On August 17, 2006, he told the Rajya Sabha: “Broad-based domestic consensus cutting across all sections in Parliament and outside will be necessary”. Subsequently, he reassured Parliament that he will “seek the broadest possible consensus within the country to enable the next steps to be taken”.


Instead of any attempt at consensus-building, the nation witnessed a polarizing single-mindedness. The zealous partisanship only helped undermine India’s negotiating leverage.


The upshot was the progressive US attachment of tougher conditions at every stage. That partly resulted from U.S. bipartisan efforts to make the deal more palatable to the non-proliferation constituency. But the gradual attachment of more and more conditions also flowed from the belief in Washington that a deal-desperate Singh would accept such a final product, especially if its mortifying terms were cosmetically couched.


The US was so right. Just as Singh’s government had blithely picked on Bush’s December 2006 Hyde Act signing statement to claim relief from that Act’s grating conditions, it has now cited Bush’s statement signing the Hyde Act-plus legislation into law to assert an illusory reprieve.


But Bush’s statement last week could not have been clearer in underpinning the primacy of US law: “The bill I sign today approves the 123 Agreement I submitted to Congress — and establishes the legal framework for that agreement to come into effect. The bill makes clear that our agreement with India is consistent with the Atomic Energy Act and other elements of US law”.


It also makes plain that New Delhi has only a theoretical right to reprocess spent fuel and that the actual right “will be brought into effect upon conclusion of arrangements and procedures”, to be negotiated in the years ahead. And to help Singh spin reality at home, Bush said the new legislation “does not change the fuel assurance” as “recorded in the 123 Agreement” — without citing either his earlier statement that such a commitment is political, not legally binding, or the new legislation’s fuel-restrictive provisions, including Section 102(b)(2) that mandates limiting supply to “reasonable reactor operating requirements” and Section 102(b)(1) that requires that if the US terminates cooperation with India, it will ensure New Delhi does not secure supplies from “any other source”.


Put simply, India has no legally binding fuel-supply assurance; no operational reprocessing right; no permission to build strategic fuel reserves; no entitlement to take corrective measures, whatever the circumstance; and no escape hatch from the legal obligations it is assuming. All the key assurances Singh made in Parliament on August 17, 2006, thus stand jettisoned. Yet today he celebrates a deal that cannot survive the light of parliamentary scrutiny and sets a treacherous legacy.


History has a way of catching up with the truth. As a well-known proverb goes, “The mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small”. 


(c) Asian Age, 2008.

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