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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 30

India Blows Up A Monsoon

Wednesday 16 July 2008, by M K Bhadrakumar


It cuts both ways when an unelected politician heads the government in a democratic country. On the one hand, he may not be adept at the politicking that becomes essential, especially when he leads a coalition government. But on the other hand, unlike a grassroots politician, he can act with decisiveness and foresight insofar as he can be impervious to public opinion.

Seventysix-year-old Manmohan Singh, who heads India’s coalition government, has never won a direct election in his two-decade-old public life. India provides for indirectly elected politicians to head the federal government and Manmohan took recourse to that provision. This had never happened before as his predecessors invariably sought direct election, which they saw as their mandate to rule.

Arguably, Manmohan is turning conventional wisdom on its head. No Indian grassroots politician in his shoes today would so decisively press ahead with the India-United States civilian nuclear cooperation agreement—popularly known among Indians as the “deal”.

It is patently clear that the nuclear deal is not an issue on which the May 2009 parliamentary elections can be won by the ruling Congress party to which Manmohan belongs. And in pushing the deal, he has shown panache for politicking that borders on adventurism by the rule book of any Indian grassroots politician. Is Manmohan overreaching? Acolytes applaud him for “political courage”.

Yet, Manmohan’s determination to press ahead with the deal and have it formalised during the limited time ahead while US President George W Bush is in office is not a matter of whimsicality. For one thing, the Congress leadership is backing him. He is personally convinced of the imperative of transforming India’s foreign policy and of making the country a strategic partner of the US, and, more important, ensuring that the transformation becomes irreversible.

Manmohan does believe in the raison d’etre of strategic partnership with the US for India’s rise as a major power. In his mind, his personal belief and the country’s interests seem to happily coalesce at this point in India’s contemporary history.

Nuclear Deal in the Final Stages

THE general impression is that time has run out for finalising the deal during Bush’s—whom Manmohan described as the “friendliest US President”—term in office. But Manmohan estimates the deal is still doable. He is probably right. Manmohan hopes to formalise the safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is a necessary underpinning for the deal, by mid-July.

He may set the ball rolling by personally apprising Bush of his game-plan when they meet on the sidelines of the Group of Eight meeting in Japan (July 9). The IAEA’s formal ratification of the safeguards agreement would be forthcoming latest by the end of August. The next step— obtaining a “waiver” from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG)—is expected to take about a month and looks a smooth run, thanks to the NSG being a progeny of the US global strategy and given Bush’s personal interest in the deal.

That, in turn, enables Bush to send to the US Congress the Indo-US cooperation agreement—123 Agreement—for final approval by end-October or early November at the very latest. Given strong lobbying by high-flying US corporate groups that expect multi-billion dollar business opportunities and rallying by powerful Jewish groups which root for US-India (and Israel-India) strategic ties, and thanks to assured bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, the chances are good that the deal will be home and dry before Bush demits office.

The Bush-Manmohan axis will be in full gear between now and January in propelling the deal. The deal is already touted as a rare foreign policy success of the Bush era. Manmohan sprung a surprise last month by pressing the pedal when the deal was taken to be dead as a dodo for want of support in Parliament.

But he had never quite given up on the deal. He was active in the sub-soil in his own dogged way. The political establishment resorted to clever stratagems—dissimulation, manoeuvring and back-room dealings—to shepherd public opinion and virtually isolate opponents of the deal so as to eventually marginalise the irreconcilable elements. The Congress party is enormously experienced in government and its skill in political management is legion in India.

At any rate, Manmohan demonstrated he could give a run for the money to India’s tough politicians, while few expected the former academic-turned-economist and World Bank official to have killer instincts. The Congress also has a strategy to counter those who thought the deal would alienate India’s 130 million-strong Muslim population and that, in turn, would cost the party dear in the 2009 elections.

Indian Muslims and the Deal

TRUE, Muslim votes are scattered over tens of dozens of parliamentary constituencies and can be decisive. Conceivably, Indian Muslims view the nuclear deal through the prism of Bush’s image as a crusader against Islam. But the government has taken in hand a conscious effort to project that Muslim countries regard India as an important partner and that the deal doesn’t jeopardise India’s standing. The Congress spokespersons have been at pains to underline no one should “communalise” the deal—coded expression to the effect that other political parties shouldn’t exploit the Muslim outrage over the Manmohan government cozying up to the Bush Administration.

Indian diplomacy is in full cry, wooing the Muslim world. The focus has shifted from “Euro-Atlanticism” to the Middle East. External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee is currently visiting Egypt, having been to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in April. India hosted a five-day visit by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in May. Manmohan is due to visit Saudi Arabia.

The icing on the cake will be Manmohan’s high-profile visit to Pakistan, which will have great resonance in Indian Muslim opinion. There is talk of an outside chance that some sort of broad understanding may be reached with Pakistan over Kashmir and even a Camp David-like peace process might become possible with Bush’s blessing (think Nobel Peace Prizes, etc). Any such development will immensely boost the Congress party’s popularity in India.

Meanwhile, National Security Advisor M. K. Narayanan visited Tehran last week as the Prime Minister’s special envoy. Mukherjee is expected to visit Tehran at the end of July, his second visit in recent months. There is a standing invitation to Manmohan to visit Iran, which is under discussion. The government is conscious that relations with Iran have become the litmus test of India’s independent foreign policy in Muslim perceptions. India has the world’s second-largest Shi’ite population, but that apart, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 caught the imagination of Indian Muslims and there is much outrage among them over the US’ standoff with Iran. Under US (and Israeli) pressure, India was forced to mothball its ties with Iran in the recent years. Muslim opinion in India was appalled.

US Watchful of India-Iran Ties

THE government estimates that critics could be silenced if it came out as keeping friendly relations alike with the US, Israel and Iran. For this to happen, Tehran must cooperate. Indian diplomacy keeps underscoring to Tehran that India is raring to go forward with “strategic” cooperation with Iran. On a parallel track, Delhi is constantly nudging Washington and Jerusalem towards an awakening that the Manmohan Government has been carefully delimiting the parameters of its strategic cooperation with Tehran in sensitive areas and, therefore, there is no need of arm-twisting publicly.

It is a delicate balancing act, but India’s high-calibre diplomats can cope with it. Delhi hopes Washington will realise its brazen pressure tactic hardly takes note of Manmohan’s domestic compulsions. Delhi sizes up that the US engagement of Iran is now a matter of time. On his arrival in Tehran on June 30, Narayanan told the media India would be willing to mediate between Iran and the international community. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Majlis (parliament) Speaker Ali Larijani received him.

Somehow, the nuclear deal and the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project have become intertwined. Recently, the Chairman of the Sub-committee on the Middle East and South Asia in the US House of Representatives, Congressman Gary Ackerman, warned he was having a “very difficult time understanding why the Government of India continues to pursue a pipeline with Iran and Pakistan”.

Top Indian officials fail to respond to such intrusive remarks, but keep articulating interest in the pipeline. This may appear “strategic defiance” of Washington and has political mileage in Indian public opinion. But in actuality, a lot of grandstanding is going on. Since the pipeline project involves Iran and Pakistan, Muslim opinion is exercised. Therefore, no matter the actual dynamics of the project (which is at a snail’s pace), the government needs to be vocal. In any case, the project will take several years to materialise, and by that time the regional situation (Iran-US standoff and Iran-Israel hostilities) can be expected to have dramatically changed.

The US estimates that actualising the India-US nuclear deal itself will take care of a host of problem areas, such as India-Iranian relations. Equally, Israel has shown equanimity by not publicly objecting to Delhi’s dealings with Tehran.

Stephen Cohen, South Asia expert at the Brookings Institution in the US, pointed out at a US Congressional hearing recently:
Japan, Turkey, Italy, Germany and South Korea are among Iran’s largest trade partners in 2007. France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan and Turkey—again US allies—were among the largest investors in Iran in 2006. India lags considerably behind all of these countries in terms of its economic relationship with Iran.

Cohen concluded:

We [US] should not demand Indian support for all our Iranian policies any more than we should allow India to dictate our policy towards Pakistan.

He may have overstated India’s case, but at the same Congressional hearing, former Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Ambassador Teresita C. Schaffer, also made a forceful case that “experience of the last 10 years would suggest that the ‘partnership list’ will grow with time” and the nuclear deal would be the “most powerful tool” in this process.

Political Uncertainties Lie Ahead

AGAINST this backdrop, Manmohan decided that his minority government would be better off without the support of the Communist Parties who robustly oppose the nuclear deal and India’s strategic ties with the US and Israel. He worked according to a plan. The Congress drew the Communists into a consultative mechanism over the past year, which ostensibly was aimed at building a consensus, but incrementally deprived the Left of the need to resort to public criticism.

Once public criticism eased, the establishment began saturating Indian media and discourses with its point of view. The Indian discourses rapidly became one-sided. Meanwhile, the Congress began wooing an important regional party, the Samajwadi Party, in lieu of support from the Communists, to ensure the government remains in power.

There is an element of risk in the project. The Communists were steady allies through the past four-and-a-half year period of the minority government, whereas the Samajwadi Party has a shifty record. But it suffices for the Congress that Samajwadi is open to wheeling and dealing, is averse to mid-term polls, and is a stakeholder since being a key supporter of the ruling alliance in New Delhi enhances its clout in the northern provinces, which are its power base and where it has local scores to settle. All the same, there is an inherent uncertainty in such an opportunistic patchwork.

Besides, when the crunch time comes, it is the government’s economic legacy—and not the nuclear deal—that will be the focal point in the 2009 elections. Ironically, Manmohan, an economist, stands on shaky ground. But with some luck, double-digit inflation, which is an incendiary issue, will ease if prices come down following a good autumn crop, provided, of course, monsoon rains do not fail, which will largely depend on whether or not the La Nina phenomenon in the central Pacific Ocean—unusual cooling of surface waters—has exhausted itself or not. But, more critically, if an El Nino phenomenon is going to develop in its place that could potentially have an adverse impact on the monsoons. The World Meteorological Organisation counsels: There is need for careful monitoring over the coming weeks.”

The Manmohan Government might seem impervious, but a grassroots Indian politician would say there are too many “ifs” and “buts” for comfort.

(Courtesy: Asia Times)

M. K. Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

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