The confrontation between the United Progressive Alliance and the Left parties over the India-United States nuclear deal has ballooned into a major political crisis, with the potential to dislodge the Manmohan Singh government and precipitate mid-term elections.
The roots of the crisis go back to the way in which the deal -- in particular, the 123 Agreement -- was negotiated, without political leaders being taken into confidence about its purpose, context or content, or involved in resolving differences over its text.
Opposition to the deal, whether genuine, procedural or contrived, has been widespread, especially in Parliament. But it's only when the Left parties made public their critique of the deal on August 7 that matters came to a head.
This was the first well-informed and reasoned critical analysis of it by any party after the 123 text was made public. It greatly narrowed the UPA's options in fudging the contentious issues involved. Even then, an ugly confrontation might have been avoided had two things not happened.
First, Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh gave an interview to the Kolkata-based Telegraph (Aug 11), challenging the Left to withdraw support to the UPA. Second, on August 14, US State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack was reported to have said that under the 123 Agreement, 'all nuclear cooperation [would be] terminated' in the event of an Indian nuclear test. This came just one day after Dr Singh told Parliament that undertaking nuclear tests is India's 'sovereign decision,' which would not cause such sudden termination.
If the second event created confusion, the first was a clear provocation for the Left. Dr Singh had allowed himself to be persuaded that he should 'call the Left's bluff.' He taunted it for not having 'thought' things 'through,' and said: 'It is an honourable deal, the Cabinet has approved it... if [the Left parties] want to withdraw support, so be it...'
Dr Singh's self-styled advisers had calculated that this would help him play off the CPM's so-called 'moderate modernisers' in the West Bengal unit against its 'hardliners' to trump their opposition to the deal. This betrayed a serious misunderstanding of how the Left parties take their policy decisions.
It also underrated the unanimity within the Left on foreign policy and security issues. The Left's reaction was ballistic. Within three days, Dr Singh was begging CPM General Secretary Prakash Karat for a reconciliation meeting over breakfast.
Thus began the worst-ever crisis in UPA-Left relations. The CPM, joined by the other three Left parties, demanded that the government suspend further talks to complete the deal. It must not negotiate a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, or get the deal approved by the Nuclear Suppliers' Group, followed by its ratification by the US Congress.
The implicit threat was that the Left would end its support to the government, or move to 'issue-based' support. Without the Left's support, the UPA would fall short of a majority in the Lok Sabha by 30 seats even if the Bahujan Samaj Party's 18 MPs back it.
Instead of sincerely exploring a via-media, the UPA resorted to another devious strategy: accusing the Left of acting at the behest of China and Pakistan. This is a tendentious charge, articulated through Right-wing pro-US China-Pakistan-baiters masquerading as 'security experts.'
In reality, there is no live contact between the Indian Left and the Chinese Communist Party, over some of whose policies the Left has serious misgivings.
We are witnessing the most vicious attack on the Left's patriotic credentials, unparalleled since the China War of 1962. Every Tom, Dick and Harry in the media -- from semi-literate television anchors, to former intelligence spooks, to pitiable third-edit writers -- is unleashing assault after vitriolic assault on the Left. This is a new form of McCarthyism, which betrays malignant intolerance for anyone who dares to question the nuclear deal from the Left.
Such intolerance can only have dangerous consequences for public debate. If every dissenting opinion is attributed to the 'foreign hand' by suppressing its rational content, and if every difference on principle is reduced to a mere 'ego clash' between personalities, we will have no rational discourse on public policy issues. That does not bode well for Indian democracy or for a culture of healthy debate.
Whatever one's opinion of the Left, it's undeniable that it represents the most important current driven by ideology and principle in Indian politics, which perhaps concentrates more brainpower per capita than any other party. Despite the Left's conduct in Singur and Nandigram -- of which this writer has been strongly critical -- its objection to the nuclear deal on strategic grounds cannot be dismissed as frivolous or ill-informed.
The nuclear deal is inseparable from a larger US game-plan to recruit India into a junior strategic partnership, not least to counter and contain China, and more broadly, to create an anchor for a Washington-dominated security architecture in Asia, on a par with Japan or Israel.
The deal cannot be divorced from the Defence Framework agreement signed three weeks earlier in 2005, nor from India's two votes against Iran at the IAEA, nor from countless recent high-level military exercises with the US and its allies.
The Left's critique of the deal is foundational. It's centred on the US's deeply destabilising world role, and its attempt to ignite a second Cold War by encircling Russia with NATO and targeting China and Iran through 'Son of Star Wars'-style Ballistic Missile Defence. The US remains the globe's most belligerent power, which has made the world more insecure through its Global War on Terror and its Empire project.
It's possible to argue that in the past two years the Left did not consistently emphasise the strategic dimensions of the deal, and often concentrated on its text rather than its context. Since December, it has been more concerned to point to differences between the Hyde Act and Dr Singh's assurances to Parliament. It didn't agitate the basic issue in public.
Any genuine, principled opposition to the deal should logically have focused on its harmful global and regional consequences for nuclear disarmament, and its promotion of an inappropriate, costly, hazardous and environmentally unsound energy trajectory based on nuclear power -- besides its consequences for the loss of India's foreign policy autonomy via a strategic embrace of the US.
These are significant errors of omission. However, the government's errors of commission are much graver. Dr Singh acted like a typical bureaucrat, and left the deal's negotiation to bureaucrats alone, without trying to bring political leaders on board. He consistently underplayed its strategic consequences, and fomented the illusion that the deal would offer a magic bullet for India's energy problems. He capitulated to US pressures on Iran. No less than former US Assistant Secretary of State Stephen Rademaker has said that India's votes on Iran were obtained through 'coercion.'
Dr Singh continues to pay lip-service to disarmament, but he knows fully well that the deal will enable India to stockpile 1,600 kg of plutonium every year -- enough for more than 300 bombs, in addition to the existing estimated inventory of 100-150 warheads. This is a recipe for a nuclear arms race with Pakistan, and worse, China, which can only reduce the security of all three States.
The UPA now faces a crisis of survival. It would be foolish for it to brazen this out. It can still rescue the situation by working on the few options it has. The first is to distance itself strategically from Washington demonstrably -- by, for instance, cancelling future large-scale military exercises with the US, or its close strategic allies.
Second, it could initiate what might be called a 'domestic Hyde Act' to prevent the transfer of any imported nuclear material or equipment out of India which would jeopardise the continuous operation of Indian reactors. This would address some opposition concerns about the US 'right of return.'
Third, the UPA must reformulate the Rajiv Gandhi plan of 1988 for global nuclear disarmament by updating it and placing it for discussion in the United Nations. That's the only concrete way of fulfilling the promise of the National Common Minimum Programme that India would seize a 'leadership role' in fighting for a nuclear weapons-free world.
Finally, the UPA must launch a national debate on nuclear power, reviewing India's (unhappy) experience with it, analysing its international performance, and focusing on its hazards, costs and unsustainability given the problems of radiation and long-acting high-level wastes. It just won't do to mulishly assert the need for nuclear energy.
It goes without saying that the UPA must suspend further negotiations on the deal while these processes are under way. Similarly, the Left must make it clear that it won't vote against the government or contribute to its fall directly or indirectly, thus helping the BJP. That could pave the way to an honourable solution.