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Having the N-deal and saving the government

By B S Raghavan
June 24, 2008 15:27 IST

Everybody has tied himself into knots, or painted himself into a corner, whichever way one looks at it, over the Indo-US nuclear deal. The deadlock over the deal is proving to be a grave distraction from the weighty problems on the economic front, besides posing a threat to the government.

The series of discussions between the External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee on behalf of the United Progressive Alliance government and the Left parties, led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist General Secretary Prakash Karat, have encountered a roadblock on the question of the safeguards and conditionalities negotiated by the government with the International Atomic Energy Agency. The government has so far been disinclined to share with the Left the draft of the agreement with the IAEA and the Left has expressed its determination to withdraw its support to the government if its objections to the deal are ignored.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, slated to meet US President George W Bush at the forthcoming G-8 meeting, and feeling obliged to deliver what both have laboured so hard for, has understandably been driven to desperation with a sense of being let down and his authority being undermined.

The latest developments have taken the country to the brink of an irreversible crisis. The country cannot afford the heavy cost of political turmoil and the consequent havoc caused to the economy. An unwanted election prematurely thrust on the country can only lead to an unspeakable worsening of the economy.  

On a sensitive issue as the nuclear deal, on which even the scientific community is divided, the fears of the Left about its adverse impact on the country's sovereign decision-making powers on account of certain provisions of the Hyde Act deserve every consideration, for they are not without substance. Some of the Hyde Act provisions are certainly intrusive, mandating submission of periodical reports by the US President to US Congress based on spot inspections by teams of nosey parkers on a variety of matters falling solely within the purview of the Indian government.

Enough has been written covering the disturbing implications of the Hyde Act, and it is not necessary to traverse the same ground again. Suffice to say, that if any US administration takes it into its head to invoke those provisions in full measure, India will in effect find itself tied to the chariot wheels of the US.

Insuperable obstacle

The clauses in the 123 Agreement on the uninterrupted supply of fuel, equipment and technologies, and on the reprocessing of spent fuel at India's discretion, as also the binding undertakings incorporated in the protocol to be signed with the IAEA are also the genuine source of disquiet of not only the Left but also renowned scientists such as the former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission Dr P K Iyengar, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board Dr A Gopalakrishnan, and former director of Bhabha Atomic Research Center, Dr A N Prasad. Indeed, they have on June 24 gone public on the causes of their unease.

However, these need not be impediments to building a political consensus, provided the government explains their rationale in a convincing manner.

Hence, the only insuperable obstacle is the Hyde Act which directly challenges India's rights as a sovereign power and by implication, reduces India to the status of a vassal state of the US. If somehow that apprehension is removed, it may be possible to save both the government and the deal, instead of viewing it as an 'either-or' proposition.

It seems to me that the present impasse can be got over if the US President and Congress can persuade themselves, or are persuaded,  to make a declaration that such of those provisions of the Hyde Act, which India considers violative of its sovereignty, would not be used to the detriment of India's interest. 

This will be a sort of voluntary self-denial by the US in order to enable India to enhance the scope of its nuclear energy development. India, on its part, as a quid pro quo, can give an assurance of not carrying out a nuclear test unless the security environment assumes exceptionally grave dimensions. 

There is a historical parallel to this kind of modus vivendi pertaining to the freedom struggle by the Indian National Congress. In the elections held in 1937 under the Government of India Act, the Congress had secured a huge victory, and was poised to form governments in various states. But an impasse arose over what the party considered to be some obnoxious provisions of the Government of India Act, giving "reserve powers" to the governor on important and sensitive matters (law and order, ICS/IP officers, judiciary, state finances etc) which, the party felt, would make the governments formed by it virtually impotent.

After intense negotiations with the then British Viceroy, a formula was worked out whereby the governors gave an undertaking that they would not use those reserve powers and would give a free hand to the governments formed by the party. This voluntary agreement held till 1939 when the governments resigned on a totally different issue of the Viceroy's unilateral declaration of war on India's behalf.

If the US and India were to make similar gestures of mutual trust and goodwill, the deadlock stands every chance of being broken.

The nation expects the UPA-Left meet tomorrow to show a high order of statesmanship and flexibility, and rise above suspicions and prejudices. All the constituents must go that extra mile to pull the country back from the brink of a looming crisis.

B S Raghavan