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Mainstream, Vol XLV No 44

Nuclear Shadow over Democracy

Monday 22 October 2007, by Kamala Prasad


[(This article was written before the Congress decided to avert a mid-term poll by not rushing through with the Indo-US nuclear deal. —Editor

The US-India Nuclear Agreement has opened a powerful debate about foreign policy before its implications for energy security. ’Strategic partnership with the USA’ was first heard in 2004 at the time of Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee’s visit to the USA. It was not paid much attention to since there was no hint of a broadbased sustainable bilateral agreement. However, an entry point was offered by the “Next Step” agreement the same year and energy was that sector. Unfortunately, the UPA did not really place before the country any precise projection or outlook for the contribution of nuclear energy with the costs involved as part of the total mix in energy security. That has allowed eminent specialists engaging in debate in a conflicting manner. So, the focus shifts to the defence policy and steps that may lead to Indian defence policy and its operation integrating into the global strategic vision and operation of the USA. This is highly controversial around the world and not the least in the USA. The low and declining public rating of the US President, George W. Bush, within his country offers credibility to such a controversy. In more recent times, the doctrines of “pre-emptive strike and regime change” and name-calling of “axis of evil” along with open espousal of “strategic competition” with China projects Asia as a future theatre of war in which India could be embroiled.

The Defence Framework Agreement provides enough of vague formulations to cast suspicion about the intentions fuelling bilateral ties in strategic fields. Official and non-official statements in the USA have emphasised the potential synergy in the foreign policies of the two countries as a by- product of this 123 Agreement. So, while the UPA Government, more so its leader in the Congress party, holds out hopes of a large potential pay-off, skeptics are driven by genuine fear of dangerous involvements in great power rivalry and follies around the world. Some opinion suggests that India hopes to become a “great global power” that it aspires to piggy back. However, the price that all this may entail remains hidden. This is only the beginning of the debate when academics and wider groups of strategists have not so far joined it. What is shown so far is the divisive potential of the debate, largely from substantial lack of transparency! It has also been presented both in India and the USA as though the Agreement involves personalised stakes for India’s Prime Minister and the US President more than the two countries. This is due to the squeezing timeframe for pushing ’operationaliation’ of the Agreement. In this confusing situation, what happens to the US processes is their concern but what is happe-ning in the country must sound alert among genuine democrats across the country. After all, the domestic roots of policy and its domestic fall-out for our democratic institutions cannot be ignored.

Parliament and the Agreement

Our strongest forum for clarifying policy confusions and long-term consequences of policy shifts is the national Parliament. The Prime Minister was eminently correct in making statements in Parliament as binding commitment for the government to follow. Interpretations given on the first statement made after the Joint Statement with the US President appear to justify weakening standards under pressure. It is becoming clear that the government has shifted the goalposts. The consequences are escalating costs in the nuclear field; the concealed harm to our strategic nuclear programme that may appear in future; and the intrusive invasion of R&D from bilateral and multilateral sources. More than the vague principle of hurting national sovereignty there is deepening concern about scientific and technological self-reliance that has informed policy all along. Nothing short of a thorough debate in Parliament will clear the mist surrounding the long-term, open and hidden, consequences flowing from the Agreement. That has been thwarted so far. Who is to blame for this sordid development? Is it party interests and personal egos thwarting candid presentations seeking transparent clarifications? Or is it a fear of “change by stealth” in the basic tenets of foreign policy, technological self-reliance and strategic sovereignty?

Power belongs to the government of the day. In the Indian system it is not even dependent on a majority in the Lok Sabha in bilateral and multilateral treaties. An inbuilt constitutional void exists. Still, the expectation is that the government should not be seen as slighting Parliament. The government has taken refuge in the technical
aspect of the constitutional provision and it has risked its credibility as the controversy elongates. However, considering that initiatives for the nuclear engagement were taken by the BJP, a frank discussion before the final government approval would not have done any harm. In fact, it would have provided the opportunity for clearing public doubts by the government. Consider also the reality that smaller parties hardly make much articulation regarding such policies but would have appreciated the costs and benefits of the agreement. The government was clear that they have no majority opinion with it, it offered a fait accompli after announcing that there was no scope for taking even valid suggestions for follow-up with the US Government. If the same proposition had been made after the debate and discussions with the USA much of the heat would have evaporated. The government cannot escape a major share of the blame in making its parliamentary commitments vulnerable.

The government position weakened further when the Left parties, propping up the present coalition, came out openly against what is by now seen as a “deal”. They combined the whole series of agreements and follow-up actions into one. It showed up the entry point of “energy security” as almost a minor issue. But what they exposed was that the government has been highly secretive about the nature of bargains with the US Government. The opportunity for internal dialogue away from the public gaze to satisfy a domestic partner was frittered away in open polemics of power. What has come out in public is that the Congress party demonstrates the benefits of power and abnegates on internal responsibility within the ruling combine. The Congress stand weakened further when it was revealed by one of the Left leaders in a conference that the Prime Minister was the one to prepare the draft of the NCMP. In the first two drafts, the provision for strategic partnership with the USA was presented. It was eliminated as a basis of consensus on the NCMP. The parties participating in government have also not shown much public enthusiasm about the agreement so far.

The government may still survive but the inherent tenets of parliamentary democracy have suffered grievously. The current development adds another chapter in weakening the foundation of our most cherished institution. When that happens, a larger risk to the rest of the institutions looms large. It has been held by articulate political opinion within the country and more so outside that Parliament is the mirror to our highly pluralistic democracy. Does the current develop-ment herald the stalling of the maturing of India’s parliamentary system for the coalition era?

Democratic Accountability

Democracy offers the most accountable system of governance. Among the different variations, the parliamentary system scores the highest. In the concluding session of the Constituent Assembly, B. R. Ambedkar did not fail to put emphasis on this aspect of the new system. He asserted
that above all others, the parliamentary system offers daily accountability whereas others only periodical. The implication of the system is that representatives imbibe the values of this assertion and act by it for the system to move towards further maturity. What has happened is just the opposite. This has led the Speaker of the Lok Sabha to suggest that an institutional mechanism, such as recall of members, needs to be introduced in our system now to curtail disruption of the House proceedings on every conceivable ground. Can shouting and disruption of the proceedings otherwise be the substitute for reasoned and impassioned debate? Will the constituents gain in knowledge by the stalling of debate or by reasoned discussion? Building conventions of the Constitution to this end have now receded in the background. Who are the guilty partners?

It was nothing short of shocking to see that the Prime Minister was not allowed to offer his side of the story about the nuclear deal on the floor of the two Houses. He is, after all, the leader of the representative system; he had been asked to account for why the Agreement should receive general endorsement of Parliament. Any other question could only proceed from this premise. The questions of details on the form and facts, on contradictions in the government stand and consequences thereof, benefits and costs in immediate as well as long-term could have appeared in the detailed debate. There is no doubt that members created a situation under which the established norm of accountability was impossible to enforce. This disclosed division among them, no doubt, but the net outcome was no different.

The government only compounded the malady. It gave a clear notice and in public that it was not concerned what Parliament did. Its exercise of power was absolute. The Cabinet approval to the Agreement was final and irrevocable. This could not but be taken as an affront to the elected representatives constituting Parliament. It was a minority opinion in any case if the Left and the main Opposition front meant what they had declared. The way the tug-of-war was on since the beginning on specific issues in the NCMP between the UPA and the Left, the support was essentially issue-based. There was a forum for in-house accountability of the UPA for functioning. A minority government challenging the supporting parties as well as the “loyal Opposition” implied a total breakdown of democratic accountability. Why was this course taken? If the government pleads to be above Parliament, then does not the system break down? Does it not lead to erosion of substantive constitutionality?

Events have shown two grounds for the way the government acted. First, the Congress party was determined to enter into an intimate,
broad-based alliance with the USA but without disclosing the details of the new links comprehensively. This was a reversal of the long-standing foreign policy undertaking. That policy was rooted in the domestic political and social realities. Those realities have changed and are less in favour of absolutism of the Union. Why was the government in a hurry to proceed to do so? This will remain inexplicable despite all that has come in the open. Second and following from it, leaders in government seem to have given a commitment to the US President to abide by the Agreement and the timeframe given by him. In his latest visit to the USA the External Affairs Minister has unambiguously spoken as much of this government’s ’commitment’. So, the government was above the sentiments expressed in Parliament.

The other signals are no less significant in this context. First, the US Ministers, representatives and spokespersons of the government have been testing the dimensions of a fundamental shift in policy from time to time. They spoke more of congruence of policies than of nuclear benefits. Secondly, the US President did not make any early concession in favour of India that he could after the Joint Declaration of 2005 under the authority given to him. Thirdly, the American ambassador in India used the national media to signal the consequences of deviation in matters such as vote on Iran in the IAEA and later the timeframe for operationalising the Agreement. The government did abide by that extra-territorial pressure from the Indian soil. Fourthly, US representatives took the unprecedented step of writing to our Prime Minister insisting that the America’s India-specific legislation, the so called Hyde Act, was binding on their government and it could not be trifled
at. This reality was repeated by government spokespersons as well. In this background the government justifying the finality of 123 agreement over the Hyde Act as if it did not exist for India could only create confusion. Finally and in contrast, the Indian ambassador in Washington seemed to toe the American agenda and to have been disparaging in his comment on the media and the Indian representatives in their searching examination of the agreements.

The US exemplified the established system of accountability in that country. The US Government did not make any move to ease the existing restrictions on strategic material trade even where no legislative curb existed. The executive branch in the USA took a leisurely step to present its proposals to make the first move for operationa-lising the Joint Statement. The American Congress followed its normal routine to hammer out a bi-partisan legislation, the Hyde Act. Despite the President’s party having a majority in both the Houses this Act contains provisions that are abnormal in the context of a bilateral treaty, to say the least. These provisions have been listed several times by the dissenting voices in the country. Thereafter, the negotiation for the 123 Agreement started. Once again it showed how the American side tried its best to conform to the Hyde Act. Where an agreed solution was not possible, the diplomatic ploy of omitting reference to it was employed. How the US-Congress will look at compliance remains to be seen when it once again asserts its authority in approving the agreement. But before that it expects India to finalise a “safeguard agreement” with the IAEA and then an NSG waiver of its relevant rules. So the US Congress will undertake a more comprehensive examination before the USA ratifies the Agreement. Let us recall that the USA has not ratified either the NPT or the CTBT which comes so much in the global nuclear agenda. Has any US Government functionary ever stated that they will go by the Agreement whatever be the opinion in its Congress? I do not remember any media report in this regard. What they have flagged are the grey areas existing in the agreement on which India may bind itself in knots in times to come.

The two systems are materially different no doubt. What is argued here is the orientation of the Indian executive and its sensitivity to assuage the hurt feelings in the legislature. The net outcome shows that while the US has an accountable executive India cannot claim to have it. The Indian executive is accountable only to parties and to that extent democratic accountability is fragmented and slave to party whims. In the instant case, it has also been shown that it is immaterial whether that party is in a majority or minority on a particular vital agreement/issue in the Lok Sabha; that would make no difference. If accountability runs such a risk in the highest fora, then no wonder that all the instruments within the government seem to be lacking in institutional accountability. Is it a symptom, once again, that democracy still runs the risk of being derailed?

Coalition Democracy

India has a coalition system for more than a decade now. The Congress party has the experience of its wrecking a coalition during the 1990s that ushered in the BJP-led coalition. The communist record is cleaner so far. Will it be tarred with the same brush? The UPA remains a highly fragile coalition since all the supporters who jointly make a majority are not partners in government. The NCMP offers the symbol as also the substance of this majority. It was incumbent on the government, therefore, to have the wisdom and patience to have suitable prior amendments in the NCMP if a fundamental shift was inescapable. In the present case, there was no emergency either. This was specially so since the Left parties have proved to be firm on priority for the items in the NCMP. It is besides the point that an internally non-debated policy or programme is in the national interest. If the propping up of the UPA was in the national interest, the conditions precedent to it were also in the national interest. The principal beneficiary of the coalition has no reason to doubt the credentials of either the allies or the supporting parties. This open clash about national interest entering the debate on a gross matter was avoidable. The Congress party has been shown in the bargain to be the loser. It has shown lacking sensitivity and concern for furthering a coalition system that shows no signs of weakening. The party may not like the prospects in the light of its hegemonistic background. The BJP also does not like it. The present political mess has offered the opportunity for comparison that could have been better avoided.

A coalition requires a creative and a patient leadership. Both these qualities belong to the political domain that teaches the art of resolving difficult political tangles. The current leadership of the Congress is seen lacking in that reserve. When they sought the support from the Left parties that are known for strong ideological roots, then it was incumbent to avoid situations that drain their patience. A coalition of heterogeneous
political parties does involve gradualism. Many opportunities can be lost and many set ideas of the coalition leaders can be thrown out. The same is true for the coalition partners. That has happened in the last three-and-a-half years. Gradualism has not harmed the country either. Desirable changes are taking place in the economic sphere. The political landscape is also undergoing significant shifts. In fact society is showing signs of stepping out of stagnation though the process is the slowest here. The UPA coalition has much to celebrate and much less to crib about. That is why the sheer obstinacy by the Congress and its leader in government appears inexplicable.

There is a fallout which is somewhat unsavoury. First, the Prime Minister talks tough and to the media in public against the Left leadership. The “take it or leave it” challenge in public was the most unwarranted. A reader’s response in The Times of India on September 17 summed up the situation well: the opportunity for such a challenge was when negotiating the deal with the USA and not going back on the valiant commitments made. Since then the government has given signals that the Congress will use the levers of power and brace a mid-term Lok Sabha election. Politically speaking, an item of agenda outside the NCMP is slated to result in the failure of this coalition. The government’s explanations are not quite convincing insofar as they look at the prospects of the Congress party rather than all the coalition partners. The probability is that each of the coalition party will lose credibility and vote. The agenda now being rushed through is the one that the Left parties sought priority for and denied earlier. The Congress and the UPA’s Budget was lukewarm to investing in that agenda at the pace the partners desired. The media projection is that Rs 90,000 crores worth of projects are being rushed up for the Congress to claim exclusive credit for benefits to aam aadmi. This is a very interesting twist in good governance in the Union Government. The Supreme Court is making queries about the proposed investment in higher education vis-à-vis reducing the scale of allocation for primary education that is now a fundamental right though not operationalised. Hopefully, the windfall should extend to the ICDS that was not favoured in the Budget despite a timeframe indicated by the Apex Court because of the dismal state of child malnutrition in India. But the question still remains: is this the ethics of a coalition? Or is this misuse of authority by virtue of the supporting parties leaving their share of ministerial berths for the Congress in good faith?

There are potentials for a more fragmented Lok Sabha after a mid-term poll. Regional parties and even their splinters are bound to advance the case for emphasis on region and community rooted agenda to win seats. They will even blame the government for wasting energy and time in an agreement to benefit foreign countries and big business. Nuclear energy will add to the negative perceptions of the SEZ and consumer retail that have generated so much negative perception of the economic reforms undertaking as prioritised. An indication of the declining fortunes of the UPA is available in the poll conducted by the IBN-CNN in January and again in September.

Business and the Mainstream Media

It is surprising that business in India has given muted response to the agreement and the agonising spat between the Congress and the Left parties. A division in the nuclear scientific community and the complex process involved in flow of the positive outcome has silenced them. They are in no position to participate in any significant manner in the resulting business soon enough. For them there are more profitable areas to invest in.

“Embedded jurnos” seem to have emerged in the India’s mainstream media. They are partners in suppressing the two opposing cases, both with credible reasons. The BJP is also opposing the deal. However, in this media this negative stand to the deal is not projected as clearly as that of the Left parties. Why is this so? Is it because they were partners earlier in the “shining India” exaggeration that the BJP lost? It is known that
the Left has influence in limited electoral constituencies. However, they have shown exemplary articulation on major issues, unlike a large number of parties. The issue is about the role of the mainstream media in furthering the democratic processes. In my perception it has failed the test miserably. It appears as the transmitter of biased news and more so views to pursue an agenda of its own. No wonder, a highly reputed journal, the Economic and Political Weekly, has editorially censured it, in its issue of September 1, for “manufacturing abuse”.

The lowest levels of biased and motivated criticism have been witnessed in recent weeks in the manner in which the media has gone after the Left for its position on the Indo-US nuclear agreement. Ironically, the nature of this criticism and how it has been presented says more about the media and those who run it than the Left itself.

The media has a very vital role in steering democracy on the balanced path to maturity. Dissent has significant influence in shaping policies and processes. Governments are known to have more than their share of influence on media direction and opinion. It is no different from the model code of conduct for political parties during elections. The code is weighed against the ruling party(ies) because of the monopoly of power it enjoys. The media rightly commends this. Who will undertake this task of the media remaining evenhanded to project dissent in furtherance of the right policies and politics? The instant case presents as dismal an image of the government under the lens as that of the media. The loser is the cause of democracy. Is it a signal for sad times?

Domestic Roots of Problems and Policies

The nuclear debate as directed has disclosed deep fault-lines in steering critical policies in tune with established democratic processes. Earlier, external pressures were seen to influence economic policy direction. That was followed by synergy in anti-terror policy with major powers making our own situation complex. Now, external pulls and pressures in political and strategic spheres give the impression of undermining the domestic
roots of policy direction. Yes, a “community of democracies” framework is doing the rounds as a humanising, civilisational goal of foreign policy! Taken together, they present a formidable challenge to the spirit of charting our course independently and adhering to the welfare of our own people at all times. There is erosion slowly of the self-confidence that has brought India to the current level of global standing.

India has made significant gains in growth, financial expansion and service sector strength. Long-term sustainability of the gains is still challenged and it remains to be tested under adverse cyclical situations. India has secured some space in the international business media. This is due more, perhaps, to the gains that external media and entertainment foresee in the Indian market. Still, it is nowhere near that for China which is a bigger market. The reality that our imports are growing faster than exports and after making for the import-intensity of export, the net growth in foreign trade is a mere one per cent needs to make us wiser. India’s national, English language media goes ecstatic and sells dreams of our foreign (read Western) importance. It pleases commercial divisions with increased advertisement revenues. But, according to a media report, the recently organised incredible India show in New York did not find space in the dailies or even their digital editions. And the show cost Rs 39 crores! In the process, we lose objectivity in the political, strategic and even economic spheres and undermine voices that plead caution and circumspection. This tendency to undermine dissent as a means to overplay the gains of the current Indo-US undertakings and in the process suppress long-term risks has come out more prominently from the time the nuclear policy debate started.

India’s claims, made by economic enthusiasts and the media, to global power and even a superpower status have little credibility outside. Edward Luce of the Financial Times wrote with irony how we go into hyperbole at the slightest success. He notes sarcastically how when India’s Commerce Minister was asked what was the future of India, he responded: “India is the Future.” Then he goes on to recount how India compares miserably, with the lowly African countries, on most social indicators that will not work for it to be a global power. Why is this so? In my view, India has not as yet adequate domestic reserves to hold its own at the high international table. The group photos with developed country leaders look pleasing no doubt. But, despite public postures giving one message, the end result does not meet the expectations held out. There is an intrinsic credibility gap and all of it is due to the weakness in the domestic sphere. Is it that we focus so much on external laurels to conceal the domestic weakness and as escape from focus on policy and economic dilemmas? The post of the Secretary- General of the UNO finds an Indian candidate only to discover lack of support from our admirer for the nuclear deal. A new Secretary-General of the Commonwealth Secretariat is to be elected. Once again India has a man in London readily available to offer. Let us see what the final outcome is. There was the election for a powerful IMF committee (International Monetary and Financial Committee) Chairman. India popped up to be a first from the developing countries because of her economic progress. The USA would have none of it. It supports Canada and the final contest is between Canada and Italy. Finally, we moved heaven and earth for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council but the USA would not come out openly for us. All these developments are of the era of President Bush of the USA. He is, indeed, the best friend India has!

Let me underline my conviction that India continues to have goodwill around the world. It was earned during a little more idealistic world. That should also make it clear that India and the USA remained good friends throughout the Cold War era. India owes much to the contribution made by the US bilateral programmes and volunteers and professionals in strengthening its economic progress and pool of trained manpower. There is no challenge to strengthen traditional Indo-US friendship. The dissent is on specifics of events leading to an agreement. The core issue is the contribution that the projected strategic partnership will make for India to reinorce the domestic roots of its strength. That creates doubt about the claims made. That raises suspicion about the shifts in balance in investment in armament and welfare. On defence per se the agreement may be better or worse than other countries have negotiated but the potential of its adverse impact on strategic deterrence and scientific advancement is not without reason. The picture is eminently fuzzy in this respect. And the first casualty is the strengthening of the democratic processes in the country.

The author, a former Chief Secretary of Bihar (now retired), is a distinguished administrator.

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