The US-India nuclear fallout

The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government is in crisis: for the first time in democratic India, a foreign-policy issue has the potential to bring a government down. External issues have had an impact in the past: the Indo-China war weakened Jawaharlal Nehru; the IPKF operation in Sri Lanka likewise debilitated Rajiv Gandhi. On the flipside, foreign-policy adventures have also helped governments to stay in power: the Bangladesh war strengthened Indira Gandhi; the Kargil war helped Atal Behari Vajpayee win an election. But never before has a bilateral treaty with an international power led to such distance between ruling allies; eroded the credibility of the prime minister; polarised debate such that the left and right are together in opposition; and raised the rhetoric to an extent that the foremost question is whether the government will fall and midterm polls be announced.

At one level, the current brouhaha is indication that discussion and debate on foreign policy have at long last moved beyond the confines of South Block. It also has to do with the fact that, as India becomes a more important player in the international arena, such issues will gain prominence within the domestic political landscape. And this is what commentators are missing out on. The Congress-left tussle is more to do with the nature of the deal and its larger implications for India's positions on global issues – which will assume greater salience in times to come – than the actual text of the agreement. The differences also stem from the fact that the UPA-left partnership has been, from the outset, an unnatural alliance between ideologically incompatible political formations.

All sides do agree that the nuclear deal is not about energy alone. Nuclear energy can only contribute in a limited manner to India's needs (in the long-term to be counted in decades), and that too after heavy investment. There are also severe environmental problems of waste disposal associated with it. For the government and strategic analysts, this deal is about crossing the threshold and being accepted into the nuclear club – the first step to true great-power status. This deal is about being treated as an exception in the international nuclear order, and being accorded a status of being more responsible and powerful than Pakistan. It is about making a fundamental choice in favour of the United States as a strategic partner and ally over China. For the critics, including those in the left parties, this deal is about cosying up to the US at the cost of curbing autonomous decision-making, and becoming a satellite state. For the left – and this is ironic, because the left opposed India's nuclear tests – this deal is problematic because it forces India to give up its sovereign right to test again.

Himal has staunchly opposed nuclear weaponisation, and always, at the cost of being dismissed for its idealism, has held that there is an inherent problem with a discourse that revolves around destructive bombs being justified in terms of war, deterrence and inter-regional rivalry. And now we have a situation where the advocates of disarmament, who, unfortunately, had too little to show for their campaign so far, have fallen into the trap of arguing against the bomb on strategic grounds. This is the reason that critics of the deal must not get immersed in its technicalities, but must instead look at the bigger picture that the deal represents.

The left is making a useful and important contribution to the political debate in India by pointing to a simple fact: that this deal will lock New Delhi into a strategic embrace with the US. This has already been witnessed in International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) discussions on the Iran issue, when New Delhi was bullied into voting against Iran by the US. Does India want to be another Japan or South Korea at a time when US geopolitical power has been so mismanaged by George W Bush that it is irrevocably declining? Or does India want to carve out an independent space, one that includes close and intimate engagement with the United States but also having the political will to make other choices – for instance, to go ahead with the Iran-Pakistan-India gasline?

At the same time, while the discussion is useful, the left needs to ask itself whether it is an issue on which it should withdraw support, and mire the country in instability. The reason this unnatural partnership came about, after all, was to keep the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Hindu extremists out of power. But the left's decision has the potential to give the opposition enough space and opportunity to stage a comeback.

Developments in India during the middle of August have been healthy: foreign-policy issues being discussed in Parliament and the media; vigorous opposition to any selling-out to the US; and questions being raised about whether India should, in the first place, have invested such political capital on the nuclear issue, rather than working on issues that could have yielded more substantive benefits for the people. At the same time, the vociferous left would do well to be restrained, and not pull the plug from the UPA, for the alternative is far more dangerous – and warlike.

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Himal Southasian