Sunday, October 14, 2007

Congress turns turtle over nuclear deal

One can call it the success of coalition politics. After all, when you are running a coalition Government, then you have to listen to your partners and sometimes take decisions that appeal to them. The Congress used to be a proud party that at one time had more than 400 Members of Parliament, but now it survives at the mercy of a host of coalition partners and outside supporters. So, the Congress has had to cancel its decisions to sell off stake in companies such as Neyveli Lignites, and other companies due to the pressure from allies. It had to agree to subvert the political system when a friend of the holiest of the holies (Quattrochi) was in the line of fire, it had to agree to block the prosecution of Laloo Prasad Yadav and Mayawati (who declares massive assets of over Rs. 50 crores), it had to look the other way when the DMK Government refused to obey the Supreme Court, it had to bend the CBI so as to get Shibu Soren acquitted by the High Court, and so on.
But the nuclear deal must have been the biggest bending of the back that the Congress has ever done. Over a period of 2 years (and it must have been updating its allies on the progress), the Congress Government has been negotiating a deal with the United States that would remove a large number of the restrictions on nuclear dealings with India. Now, we all know that the Indian civilian nuclear program has done a great deal in the face of technology cut-off, but realistically the Indian energy generation from the nuclear area has been much slower than expected and has failed to meet its targets in the past (otherwise why would we be buying nuclear reactors from Russia). Our energy needs are such that we have to be this world in our policies, and no longer stand on the 'we can do everything' stand.
Like any deal, no party can ever come out of a deal like this with having got everything it wanted. One measure of how good a deal is about whether people are satisfied or dis-satisfied. A deal that fails to get the support of the Indian left and the nuclear-ayatollahs of the US State Department is intrinsically a good deal :-). On a serious note, there are a number of strategic experts who are happy with the deal, and my own take on the deal is that this is a good effort. In an ideal world, we should have exploded a device in the 1960's and got to be a member of the nuclear-capable club, but no use crying over spilt milk.
The bigger problem with the apparent Government and Congress capitulation to the Left over the nuclear deal is that the credibility of the Government is shot. If, when the deal was announced and the Left had laid down the line of 'over our dead body', and the Government had backed off at that point, it would still have been good. The deal was a complex deal, and there was little understanding of the deal. Instead, the Government spent so much time over explaining how the deal would be good, got the nuclear experts to vouch for the deal, got a lot of strategic security experts to favor the deal, and got the middle class involved in the deal with the talk of a closer understanding with the US and the promise of removal of many of the dual-use restrictions. It even got the allies to speak in the same way. And then the ultimate, with the 2 divinities, Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi both daring the Left to withdraw support.
Maybe the expectation was that the left would back off this strong show of opposition, and maybe there was a wrong thought that this was play-acting by the Left so that their constituency was mollified. But from all the discussion, it would be clear that rather than the nuclear deal, it was the implied much closer relationship with the US that was abhorrent to the Left, and the feeling was so strong that they would be willing to let the Congress Government fall. In addition, the allies, having anticipated that the fall of the Government and the elections might impact them negatively, also pushed back. And so we had the extraordinary spectacle that the PM and the Party President in one day moved back and admitted that the deal was dead, and so was the credibility of Manmohan Singh.
This is also the death of Manmohan Singh the technocrat, the man with the non-politician touch. He laid his reputation on the line on this issue with personal comments, and having to step back must have hurt. One thing is for sure, the author of this piece will no longer treat Manmohan Singh as being different from the other politicians.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 8:41 AM