Once upon a time in another continent, there was a country, almost as large as India, which was rich and prosperous. Between 1880 and 1916, Argentina was among the top ten nations of the world, a potential great power. Since then it has been steadily declining, with its politics veering between conservatism, military rule and radical populism.
Even today, the country possesses abundant resources and a well educated and talented population, but it remains a potential great nation, rather than an actual one. Somehow, it seems to have missed all the chances that it got in the past century to get back on the track to greatness. India’s story is an older one, going back more than three centuries. But these days we, too, seem to be resembling luckless Argentina, rather than our northern neighbour China which, in the short space of three decades, has nearly restored its status as a great world power.
There is a trite assumption that “Shining” or “Incredible” India, one with a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, are inevitable; indeed, in some measure, we are already “there.” The reality, if we are to learn from history, could be different. With the world’s largest population of illiterate, ill and hungry people, we are only part way through the journey. Our recent successes could turn out to be a peak, rather than an upward trend line.
Looked at from another angle, the health of the country’s political system and processes does not appear too good. First, India’s political system seems to be suffering from a serious dysfunction. With none of the three major political formations — the Congress, BJP and the Left —being able to establish themselves, the country is being pulled apart by smaller ethnic and caste leaders whose narrow focus not only does not take into account “India” and issues related to it, but actually undermines the idea of India. Second, the administrative system of the country has become so corrupt and inefficient that the delivery of public health services, education, and even basic law and order does not exist for the poorest half of the population. Third, the inefficiencies associated with the Indian political and administrative system have led to a collapse of rural infrastructure and the creation of shoddy urban conglomerations which are, in some measure because of factors 1 and 2, becoming ungovernable. Fourth, India’s sclerotic political and administrative system is so caught up with simply surviving that it has ceased to be effective in solving outstanding political problems, or problems that are emerging. So negotiations with separatists in Jammu & Kashmir, Nagaland, Assam, or with the Maoists in central India, seem to be trapped on a treadmill.
Just how does the Indo-US nuclear deal connect to these varied set of issues? It is not as if the nuclear deal will resolve all of India’s problems and make us a superpower. What the deal and the way it has been handled does is to tell us a great deal about India’s self-doubts and uncertainties, and indeed points to the hubris that could bring our ambitions low. Beyond the nuts and bolts of civil nuclear cooperation, the deal represents a major effort by the leading nations of the world to bring India into the mainstream of international politics — somewhat akin to the exercise that took place in the 1970s with the People’s Republic of China. Fitting India into the world’s non-proliferation system, whose lynch-pin is the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), is seen as an act that will promote global stability.
The heavens will not come down if the deal does not go through. We can bungle on as we have. But it will leave uncomfortable questions about India’s ability to discriminate between what is good and what is bad for itself; and of the ability of its political system to work the international system. By all accounts, the US and the International Atomic Energy Agency have yielded on every single count raised by India, yet a significant chunk of our politicians, driven by short-term and narrow considerations, are unable to accept this.
Of the two main opponents, it is easier to understand, though not condone, the Left’s opposition. It is based on an irrational, and untenable belief that the US is the leader of “world imperialism”. The problem with the Indian Left and its leadership is that they are fighting a war on another planet. In that world, the Vietnam war is still continuing, Che and Fidel’s revolution has swept Latin America and the Soviet Union is flourishing. Unfortunately for the Left, in our world, a united Vietnam, has followed China’s “market socialism”, become a new tiger economy, and is a member of the Association of South East Asian Nations, a once reviled grouping of “imperialist lackeys”. The Soviet Union has ceased to exist and Fidel has just retired as the head of a nation he has left decrepit.
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s opposition is completely spurious, and somewhat cynical, because it has no bugbear like “imperialism” holding it back, neither is it opposed to the idea of having the US take the lead in lifting the nuclear embargo on India. The BJP, which termed the US India’s “natural ally” and whose current prime ministerial hopeful once pressed his government to send troops to Iraq, can hardly oppose the deal on the same grounds as the Left. The BJP says it will get a better deal. But, as Strobe Talbott has pointed out, it was willing to settle for less than 50 per cent of what the Congress has got. In these circumstances to argue that a “majority” of Parliament is opposed to the deal is superficial.
India certainly needs to be grateful to the US for pushing the deal to the extent it has. No doubt the US has its own interests in mind, but India is not a callow new nation, or a failing state which can be manipulated to some nefarious end. The 123 Agreement with the US and the India-specific IAEA safeguards agreement have shown that our officials, if properly directed, are capable of not only preserving, but furthering the country’s best interests.
As it is, in its totality, the deal is between the NSG cartel and India. The 123 Agreement, the Hyde Act, the India-specific safeguards agreement are all enabling processes. The actual agreement will be the “clean exemption” that the Nuclear Suppliers Group would have to give India to enable all its 45 members to resume civil nuclear trade with India. For a time the NSG was a western grouping. But over time it has gathered strength and drawn in countries like Russia, South Africa, Brazil and China and become a true international cartel.
There is an argument that, given the trends, the US and the world community will be happy to offer the deal to India at a later date. Perhaps they will, perhaps they won’t. True, having established several benchmarks, it will be easy to pick up the thread of the negotiations subsequently. But consider two issues: First, there is nothing left to negotiate. Everything that India could have conceivably wanted has been delivered. Second, it is not impossible that we can once again arrive at a conjuncture where we can get a friendly US president, an acquiescent US Congress, and a cooperative head of the IAEA to offer us a deal. But it is improbable. History does not usually repeat itself. In the coming decades we are unlikely to have another system-destructive US president like George W Bush, who was willing to bend the NPT system, as no other US leader would have been willing to, so as to accommodate India.
This article first appeared in Mail Today March 12, 2008