Sunday, March 23, 2008

Deconstructing the Left's stand

Communist Party of India (Marxist) General Secretary, Prakash Karat has given an interview to Times of India where he has outlined the state of play on the Indo-US nuclear deal as of March 21. I am reproducing the interview below with my take on some of the issues:

Left not ready for N-deal: Prakash Karat

Times of India March 22, 2008

CPM general secretary Prakash Karat remains unfazed by government's fresh moves to pursue the nuclear deal. In an exclusive interview with Akshaya Mukul, Karat speaks on the deal, experience with UPA and prospects of a third alternative. Excerpts:

Does briefing by UPA address concerns raised by Left?

We had not raised any concern about the safeguards agreement with IAEA. Our problem is with 123 Agreement and Hyde Act. It was government which said that they would like three things addressed in the safeguards agreement. One, assurance of uninterrupted fuel supply. Two, building of strategic fuel reserve and last, corrective measures in case of termination of fuel supply. Let us see how these have been met.

There is a view that government would now go to NSG as they say it would also open the way for nuclear cooperation with countries like France and Russia.

As of now, government wants to go to NSG for operationalising 123 Agreement with US. That is what we are opposed to. If in an another context we have to go to NSG for waiver, it can be considered. Our stand remains that we cannot conclude safeguards agreement and go to NSG to operationalise 123 Agreement.

[ In other words, the Left has no problems if the government concluded an IAEA safeguards agreement and approached the Nuclear Suppliers Group to give India a waiver from the rules banning nuclear dealings with India. What they object to is undertaking the process to operationalise the 123 agreement. This is at one level a deliberate refusal to concede that it is NSG countries—Russia, France and 40 others—who have chosen the route that the government is proceeding on.

At another level it betrays a hopeless understanding of contemporary international politics. The NSG comprises of countries like South Africa, Russia, China, US and its allies, Scandinavian countries, Brazil and so on. None of them, except perhaps the US, Russia and France are keen to give India any exemption. These three countries wish to do so for geopolitical reasons, not economic. For none of these countries is nuclear trade by itself that valuable. But India’s good will is. However, both France and Russia know that in today’s global power balance, only the US can swing the NSG end of the deal because it is the only country in the world that has clout with the diverse actors who constitute the NSG.

Equally important is the fact that of the principal countries, only the US had a specific act, the Atomic Energy Act, barring trade with a country that has a nuclear weapons programme and which is not a signatory to the NPT. To get around this, the US Congress had to pass the Hyde Act which in turn is the basis on which the 123 Agreement is arrived at. Such agreements are not specific to India, there is a China 123 and so on. So while the US required a specific process, countries like Russia and France and only restricted by the commitments they have made to the IAEA and the NSG. So, you could have worked out 123 type agreements with them, but they would be merely pieces of paper.]

Do you think the safeguard talks have any meaning as long as your basic objection that 123 Agreement is anchored in Hyde Act is not addressed?

Our basic objection is to 123 Agreement that flows out of Hyde Act. Left-UPA committee was set up to discuss this issue. We have held six rounds to discuss implications of Hyde Act on 123 Agreement and related matters like foreign policy and security. It is only after that government wanted to go for talks with IAEA.

[The Left has persistently seen the Hyde Act as a major obstacle. But the fact is that the Act is a key that will open the door to civil nuclear trade with the entire world. As is typical of US legislation, the Hyde Act has several layers—one is the declaratory elements where individual Congressmen put in their pet desires such as roping in India on the Iran containment project and so on, but these are not binding on the legislation. Then come the “reporting element” where the Congress requires regular reports on the functioning of this or that act from the administration. As far as India is concerned, the key elements were the waivers to the provisions of the US Atomic Energy Act that barred trade with countries like India.

When Condoleezza Rice says that the US policy will be consistent with the Hyde Act, what she means is the operational or mandatory elements of the act, not its declarative parts.]

Was there an understanding?

An understanding was arrived between UPA and Left that government will go for talks but not initial the text or take it to the board of governors for approval. They will report back to committee, outcome of the talks.

In retrospect was it a correct decision?

As far as we are concerned, as long as government does not formalise the safeguards agreement, the next step of operationalisation of the deal is not taking place. The statement of Left-UPA committee had made it clear on November 16 meeting that government will proceed further only after the outcome of the IAEA talks which will also be taken into consideration to arrive at the findings. At the same time, it was understood that findings will have to be there before government operationalises the deal. The four-month period since the talks began in November should have been sufficient for Congress and UPA to assess the situation and decide whether it is worthwhile to proceed with the deal.

There is a view that government would now move ahead and clinch the deal?

I do not think so. It is finally a political decision that Congress and UPA leadership had to take. That is why in November there was a written statement recognising that UPA-Left committee has to be in the picture regarding operationalisation.

What would Left do in case government moves ahead?

As far as CPM is concerned, our central committee decided in August last year that all necessary steps be taken to stop the deal from moving forward.
PMO thinks that Left would ultimately come on board and allow the deal to be signed. Their hope emanates from the fact that in case BJP comes to power it would sign the deal while the Left would be blamed for not letting UPA do it.
I do not think anyone has doubts about the Left's stand on the deal. Since the majority in Parliament has in the last discussion in December 2007 come out against the deal, the democratic way would be to wait for the next general election and see if new Parliament would favour the deal.
We do not presume that BJP is going to come to power in the next election. So it is baseless to speculate on what they would do. Anyway, Bush won't be around by the time our next general election takes place.

[If the Central Committee has so decided, then why have the CPI(M) allowed the discussions to take place at the IAEA and why have they not simply pulled the plug by refusing to participate in the Left-UPA meetings. The issue of the parliamentary majority is a bogey. Such majorities are determined on the floor of the House, not on the statement of its leaders. The Congress government in 1991 was in the minority till May 1992, yet is passed significant legislation relating to the economic reforms. Was that illegitimate ? For international agreements, the government does not need parliament approval.]

What do you think of the PM seeking help of BJP in favour of the deal and calling Atal Bihari Vajpayee 'Bhishma Pitamah' of Indian politics?

US has also tried to influence BJP to change its stand. But Parliament debate made it clear that there is no consensus on the deal. Even if BJP had supported the deal our stand would not have changed.
Votaries of deal feel that in a scenario where government signs the deal and Left withdraws support, it would have no choice after the next election but support a Congress-led coalition just to keep BJP at bay.
There is no question of government proceeding with deal which would lead to withdrawal of support from the Left. Pranab Mukherjee has already made it clear that neither a minority nor a caretaker government can proceed with such a major international agreement.

[True, a caretaker government cannot proceed with any policy measure, but a minority government can, as long as it is the government. And also look at the opposition. The BJP and the Left’s opposition to the deal are very different. The BJP is not against the deal with the US, it claims that it will get a better deal. The Left is against any dealings with the US.

For those who would like to split hairs there is another aspect: The 123 Agreement and the IAEA safeguards text have already been approved by the Cabinet of a government which is in a majority. The appending of the signatures on the two documents are a mere formality.]

Has Left-UPA relationship suffered due to Indo-US nuclear deal?

Overall, there has been no major deterioration in the relations. On the nuclear deal and strategic alliance with the US, there are serious differences. On other matters we had not expected UPA to agree with Left position.

[This is not the public perception. Most people think that the partnership is a cynical alliance so that they can retain power. Politically the two are far apart. Indeed, in states like West Bengal and Kerala, the Left’s bastions, they are the principal rivals]

What lesson has Left learnt from UPA experiment?

According to us, Left support to UPA government and our attitude to government has gone on expected lines. The strategic partnership with US which is outside the framework of CMP was the wild card. We had to tackle this issue. On economic policies, Left has succeeded in checking some of the more harmful steps government proposed to take. On commonly agreed issues like NREGA and Tribal Act, they have done it with our support and, at times, pressure.

Would Left be more aggressive if a 2004-like scenario is thrown up again after the next general election?

We cannot say what kind of situation will arise after next Lok Sabha election. But any coalition government with which Left will be concerned will have to have a clear cut policy document.

Left has started working towards the Third Alternative. But there are talks of Samajwadi Party and Congress getting closer. Even RJD and SP have opened lines of communication. What kind of political realignments do you see before the next election?

We are pursuing the third alternative by discussing with parties and working out a common platform of policies. In the meantime, we are cooperating on issues. Our party has already said we would like to have relations with parties within and outside UPA. What happens with electoral alliances is a different matter. It's too early to say but the reality is Congress-BJP together could not get more than 285 seats out of 543 seats in the current LS.
It is good if secular parties like SP and RJD are talking to each other.

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