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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 32

Who is Worried about the National Interest?

Wednesday 30 July 2008, by Arun Kumar


Unbelievable horse-trading is going on in the corridors of power in Delhi on an issue—the nuclear deal—which, according to both sides of the divide, is a matter of national interest. It must not be lost sight of that the agreement with the IAEA is only the first step to formalising the agreement with the USA and that is the real intent of what is going on today. The debate today is lost in the technicalities of the agreement with the IAEA or the contradictions between the Hyde Act and the 123 Agreement. Often we are stuck in the details of the preamble of the agreement with the IAEA and its various clauses. Some have gone to the extent of saying that those who do not know how international treaties are negotiated have no right to criticise them. This would rule out the entire nation barring a hand few and there can then be no debate.

Media reports suggest that there is a no holds barred fight to win the vote in Parliament. There are those who are being offered upwards of Rs 20 crores and there are those who are perhaps demanding upwards of this amount. Others are demanding lucrative Ministership or Chief Ministership or setting up of smaller states where they can be the undisputed leaders (where they can make much more this amount). The personal interests of those in Parliament who are supposed to be the upholder of the national interest are being indulged in and the nation be damned.

Arguments are being heard that the Prime Minster belongs to a particular community so the MPs from that community should vote for him. Old legal cases are being reopened against the opponents. It is being suggested that the cases of supporters will be put on the back burner. Imprisoned MPs are being let out on bail. The corporate sector is involved in lobbying and perhaps it has loosened its purse strings to help gather votes and support from parties. Wheeler dealers are having a field day. What the cash-for-questions case had shown was that some Members of Parliament were willing to bend for the sake of small sums of money. That was small change compared to the sums being mentioned today. The JMM bribery case pales into insignificance before the scale of the current operations in the nation.

The wraps are off and the extent to which the national leadership is compromised and it is willing to stoop to is now visible to all—little is left to anyone’s imagination. No wonder there is so much illegality in the country and the black economy so large. What it shows is that most institutions of democracy are manipulable for the personal gains of the leaders. If someone’s illegality is to be excused or someone is to be harassed, that can be arranged. When this can happen to the powerful, what chance does the citizen have to stand against those in power? No wonder democracy is weakening in the country and almost non-existent in large parts of the country. Under the circumstances governance is bound to be weak and policy failure so large.

The tragedy is that national interest has become secondary to the winning of the vote through partisanship. For the first time, on a crucial foreign policy issue, major parties stand so deeply divided. Attempts at building a national consensus have been given up and the government of the day is willing to proceed even if it wins a contrived vote by a narrow margin in Parliament. Would such a vote reflect national interest? If the proponents of the deal are correct, should they not spend more time convincing the opponents?

How is the national interest to be defined? Perhaps, based on the consensus amongst the collective leadership of the nation. If the collectivity of the leadership is genuinely divided then it means that the national interest is ill-defined and there is a need to work at it. Since the stakes involved are high, if the opponents turn out to be correct, the nation would be grievously hurt.

If the national leadership is seen to be indulging in horse-trading, then the public’s perception can only be that there is no national interest and there are only narrow personal interests to stay in power. A great disservice would be done to the national psyche because matters of critical importance would be seen to be unimportant or matters of power play. Actually, political defection is going on, on a large scale. As this author has pointed out in the past, defection first begins in the mind when someone decides that they can switch sides for the sake of money or power. The act of voting comes much later. In the present case, defection is from the national interest. Those in power are inciting others to vote for money or for political power and not for national interest. Should the MPs (and the public) not discuss the matter thread- bare in their parties and come to a consensus and then allow the vote to take place in Parliament? Given the absence of inner-party democracy, this is ruled out; so defining the national interest is proving to be difficult, if not impossible. It is quite on the cards that some MPs will defy the party leadership in the coming vote.

Of course, in the present instance, what is involved is not just any national interest but a long-run one—a strategic one. One can think of importing more of less of computer chips in a given year as an issue of national interest but it is not of long run or strategic interest. Allowing MNCs to enter the retail sector in the country is a strategic decision but still not as crucial as the one that may weaken the nation politically and militarily, as could happen with the nuclear deal with the USA. Given the strategic long-run character of the nuclear deal, the decision on it should neither be hurried nor one which does not involve a much wider consensus than is available to the UPA Government.

Ostensibly, the decision is being taken on the ground of increased availability of nuclear energy. This is important in the context of today’s energy shortages/price rise. But is it strategic enough to give up national consensus on foreign policy and to give up the long-run foreign policy independence and strategic military interests?

Nuclear energy produces little green house gas (but even more deadly pollutants which last tens of thousand of years) and so will enable the use of more energy—a pre-requisite for growth. According to the government, 20 years from now, the agreement will enable us to produce seven per cent of our energy through the nuclear route. At the moment, we produce hardly three per cent of our needs from this source. Actually, given the 10-year lead-time to set up these plants, the per cent of the energy obtained from this source will dip in the coming years till the new plants come into operation about a decade from now.

Surely, through investment in research and reordering of priorities we can save and/or produce this much of energy. For instance, a shift from the current emphasis on private mode of transport to public transport could save more than seven per cent of the energy requirements. Shift from air travel and freight movement by road to railways could also save more than the amount being discussed. Greater use of bio mass and other renewable sources, like wind power and solar energy, are some of the other obvious examples of saving of the current commercial forms of energy. In that case, can expensive nuclear energy be of strategic interest to the nation? If not, the foreign policy and military aspects have to be the over-riding aspects of the Indo-US agreement.

Russia has supplied nuclear power plants in the past and seems to be willing to give more. These imported plants are safeguarded in perpetuity. This arrangement can continue for whatever nuclear energy we need. But then we have to have a relationship with the Russians but that is what the US does not want. The US has not been setting up nuclear plants for a long time; so we cannot get them from them and would have to go to the Russians or the French anyway. So, why this agreement? Further, since we are supposedly short of fuel, for the new or the older plants we would have to import the material. This supply can be cut off in case of political disagreements and no matter what is agreed to, we would be able to do little, as happened in case of Tarapore. Would the nation not be open to political blackmail? This is far more likely to be the case with the only superpower of the world than with other nations.

In reality, the crucial feature of this deal is the strategic tie-up with the USA. There are two aspects to this—a political and a technological one. The political aspect is of greater strategic importance. Given our current economic and military position, we can at best be a junior partner of the USA (just as Britain under Blair was). It would want us to counter the rising power of China, help it in the Central Asian Republics, Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan and in containing Iran. It would like us to downplay the Russia-China-India grouping. Thus, it would like us to be its regional representative against Islam to our West and China and Russia in our North—like Israel is protecting US interest in the Middle East.

It maybe attractive to think that we could be an ally of the only superpower in the world today. Many in the elite circles today think like that. Many NRIs located in the USA are also of this opinion and they are said to be using their clout with Indian politicians to push for this deal. The danger is that this superpower is assertive and does not believe in peace. It has been pushing wars all around in our neighbourhood and this invariably harms our interests. Our national interest demands we should be trying to help the world to restrain its ambitions rather than becoming a part of its global design. Like in the school, if the bullied children join the bully, it only strengthens that bully while if everyone stands up to him, he pipes down.

It is in our national interest that we should help resolve the various problems in our neighbourhood. It is peace in this area that will enable us to accelerate our development to overcome poverty. China is a recognised nuclear power state with a different status than ours. The new deal will freeze our position in this regard and weaken us vis-a-vis China forever. If the argument is that we need nuclear weapons to counter China, this deal is not the way to go about since it is meant to cap our capabilities and our dependence on the US will increase. If we are going to be permanently weakened with regard to China, that is reason enough to have peaceful relations with that country.

Peace in the Middle East is essential for our energy security and is a matter of concern for our sizeable Muslim population. Thus, it is less than clear why India should be a part of the US design for Asia. The US is mired in Iraq and Afghanistan with its partners deserting it one by one and it is fomenting trouble with Iran. It is in our long term interest to be mediators in resolving the problems in the neighbourhood rather than being a partisan.

Regarding technology, it is argued that what has been denied to India till now will become available. It may be asked, when has any nation given another nation advanced technology? If one has advanced technology one can perhaps bargain for its exchange in some other area but if one has little, as is the case with India today, then no one will offer us advanced technology.

Technology is a moving frontier. Today’s advanced technology is tomorrow’s intermediate technology and day after’s low technology. So, textiles were intermediate technology product in the fifties but low technology ones today and electric traction railway engines were high technology in the sixties but are now intermediate technology. In the last 60 years, India has only been offered low or intermediate technology by the West and that too at a price. The Bokaro steel plant, initially to be set up with US assistance, was eventually set up with Soviet help. Further, the know-how or the know-why is not shared by the Western firms so that absorption of technology and its development have been weak and we have remained dependent on import of each new generation of technology. The Soviets shared technology with us, say, in the case of power plants produced in BHEL but as soon as we went in for collaboration with KDW of Germany, the process of indigenisation of generator technology suffered.

At the time of independence, India was ahead of China in nuclear technology. However, China pulled ahead and developed nuclear technology in the fifties by exercising its national will in spite of stoppage of assistance by the USSR. What we need today is this political will and not the hope that we would be able to access advanced technology after signing the agreement with the USA. In fact what we are demonstrating today through the political wranglings going on in the corridors of power is that we lack political will. One is reminded of what Kissinger had reported Mao-Zedong saying about India, namely, it never gained independence. If leaders (including MPs) can switch sides on an issue of crucial national importance because of petty inducements, then it is clear that the nation lacks will.

The US has not given us technology in the past and is unlikely to give us advanced technology now. Buying the seventies technology F-16 aircraft will not get us technology. India is not even being offered the aircraft incorporating two generations ahead technology in other aircraft in the US arsenal. Mere use of some technology does not mean that we get the technology. We have been using the Mirage 2000 or the SU-30 but are nowhere close to having the technology to make such aircrafts.

Our LCA programme has floundered since the eighties, in spite of production of MIGs since the sixties and the use of SU-30. We are still dependent on the US supplied engines and so on. Fifty years after the first nuclear reactors were set up in India, we are now banking on importing them for power production after signing the agreement. Why have we not been able to develop the requisite technology? Even if the power plants are imported we are unlikely to get the technology. So, there is no short-cut to the political will to gain self-sufficiency in nuclear technology or any other advanced technology.

In brief, the problem with the deal is that neither nuclear energy nor technology are its crucial aspects. Even if on the small details of the agreement with the IAEA or regarding the 123 Agreement the proponents are correct, what of the big picture which they are not even admitting to? The real intent of the agreement with the USA is the strategic alliance which would cap our nuclear military programme while simultaneously leading to a worsening of our relations with our neighbours for the sake of US interests. Are we then not getting the worst of all worlds for some uncertain gains? When on a matter of strategic national interest, the leadership is willing to indulge in horse-trading to win the vote, does it not imply that the leadership lacks a national vision and is weakening the nation permanently. The wraps are off from the way the leadership in the country works. Can such a leadership be trusted with the national interest? The internal weakness cannot but reflect in external weakness; so the nation must wonder whether there is some deal other than the one we know of?

Dr Arun Kumar is a Professor, Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be contacted at e-mail:

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