Nuclear Deal Survives Indian Coalition Split

By N. Gunasekaran

Chennai, India

An attempt by the Bush administration to negotiate a deal with India on nuclear technology split India’s center-left coalition government in a dispute over sovereignty. The Left, led by Communists, withdrew from the government headed by Dr. Manmohan Singh of the centrist Congress Party after the government decided to seek endorsement of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board for an agreement to safeguard nuclear technology.

The government narrowly survived a confidence vote July 22, but it sets up general elections next May.

The Left perceived the IAEA move as initiation of a controversial Indo-US nuclear deal that has strained the coalition. The Left accused the government of being more concerned with “fulfilling its commitment to the Bush administration rather than meeting its commitment to the people of India.”

The government believed that it would “soon” complete the agreement with the IAEA. Later it would go on to secure approval from the 45 member-nations of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. After those two steps, the US Congress was supposed to vote on the Indo-US Nuclear Deal, which would give India access to civilian nuclear technology and fuel in exchange for the safeguards on India’s civilian nuclear reactors. The deal, which was announced in 2006, has been followed by a number of agreements, such as military collaboration and concessions to US capital in the retail sector, education, etc.

The Left rejected the argument that the nuclear deal would provide India’s energy security. Since the deal was anchored in the 2006 Hyde Act, the Left argued it would “hamper” India’s strategic autonomy. The major pitch of the advocates of the deal including President Bush and Indian Prime Minister Singh was that the nuclear deal would provide India’s energy security. It mocked reason to trust such claims. The Left refuted this argument. Even if the ambitious plans worked well for the next 25 years, the energy output from this nuclear agreement would be about 7%-9% of India’s total energy requirement by the year 2020. In view of the huge expensive capital costs of constructing nuclear power plants, the cost of nuclear energy would be three times higher than that of energy from thermal or hydroelectric resources.

The Left was also concerned about the callous attitude of the government in tackling the unprecedented rises in the prices of rice, wheat, edible oil, vegetables and other essential commodities that have shot up more than 40%. The government has increased the prices of gasoline and diesel fuel seven times in the last four years. Alternative steps suggested by the Left to contain the price rise were ignored. Also, the top corporate houses amassed wealth exploiting the liberalization policies and huge tax benefits given by the rulers, while more than 78% of Indian people lived on less than 50 cents a day.

The people of India defeated right-wing Hindu Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP)-led coalition in the 2004 parliamentary elections. The Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), unable to get a parliamentary majority, sought the cooperation of Left members who were committed to secularism and eager to prevent the anti-secularists’ re-entry into power. The Congress leadership promised the Left and the Indian people that their government would take serious measures to improve the conditions of the common people. It was agreed that the National Common Minimum Programme (NCMP) would be the basis for such efforts. The betrayal of these commitments by the UPA leadership was the basic reason for the current political crisis.

For the past four years, the Left had to confront each and every neo-liberal initiative of the government. The UPA government tried its best to induct foreign direct investment (FDI) in the retail sector, hike FDI in the insurance sector, privatize pension funds, facilitate the takeover of domestic private banks by foreign banks, etc. The Left prevented these steps from being completed as the government wished. The Left forced the government to initiate certain pro-people measures, such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Tribal Rights Bill and the Right to Information Act.

The split of the Left-UPA relationship has thrown certain questions about the future course of Indian politics. Both the Congress-led alliance and the BJP-led alliance are comfortable with the US hegemonic attitude and committed to neo-liberalism and both have done havoc to the lives of millions of India’s poor. The alternative to the existing pro-US, neo-liberal and the rightwing anti-secular alliances led by the Congress and the BJP have to emerge in the India’s political landscape. The Left will naturally play a crucial role in such an alternative.

The present impasse presents three scenarios. First, the implementation of neo-liberal reforms depriving social justice for the millions of poor would create enormous rage among the working people. It might strengthen the political movements of the marginalized poor led by radical left forces. On the other side, it might lead to political rejuvenation of the reactionary nationalist authoritarian forces symbolized by the BJP, which are eagerly waiting to take the reins of power in New Delhi.

Meanwhile, letting intrusion of American hegemony in the internal affairs of the country endanger sovereignty of India and its capability of pursuing independent foreign policy would lead to chronic instability. How the common people realize these dangers and deal with them effectively is more important than the government’s narrow victory in the confidence vote.

N. Gunasekaran is a political activist and writer based in Chennai, India.

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2008

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