At last, the Indo-US nuclear deal is well on its way to becoming a reality. All those doomsday predictions about knockout inflation deflating government bravado, or the fear that the Left would knock the bottom out of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) have evaporated in the face of an imminent bailout by the Samajwadi Party (SP). None other than SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav has pointed to that eternal dictum of realpolitik: There are no permanent friends or foes, both in life and politics.
Illustration: Malay Karmakar / Mint.
If clichés were what Yadav was after, here’s another one: My enemy’s enemy is my friend. So, if Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati and Yadav are eyeball to eyeball in India’s most populous state and the lady has just withdrawn support from madam, then it stands to reason that Yadav and Sonia Gandhi are breaking bread with each other. Rumours of their meeting are fodder for media hereafter.
Still, the fact that 39 SP members of Parliament are heaving a huge sigh of relief at the idea of returning to the centre of attention — and, presumably, to the promise of richer accolades — does not take away from the government’s oh-so-casual approach to possibly the most important piece of foreign policy legislation in decades.
Truth is, from the time the US promised India on 17 July 2005 to help manoeuvre it onto the high table where the big powers sit — and lounge and lean and blow circles of smoke, despite these politically correct times — by persuading the top dog body called the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to make an exception for India on the nuclear front, the Congress party has simply, shamefully, gone into hiding.
Instead of government ministers and MPs explaining the ramifications of the nuclear deal to their constituents — it will enable India to get access to high technology that it has been denied for decades and, perhaps, even a permanent membership to the UN Security Council — Congressmen of all shapes and sizes simply dumped the deal at the Prime Minister’s (PM) doorstep.
It speaks volumes for the Congress’ arrogance that it hardly bothered to explain what the deal was about to its allies, to parties such as the SP (whose support they’re so desperately seeking today), or to opposition parties such as the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The PM’s aides, in his defence, say that after he returned from that fateful trip to Washington, DC, nearly three years ago, he first called a meeting of the cabinet committee on political affairs (CCPA), at which all UPA constituents were represented. They cleared the agreement. Only then did he take it to the cabinet committee on security (CCS) for discussion. Moreover, the PM himself initiated several debates in Parliament to examine the deal.
Instead of going out and rallying the masses and making speeches about a changing world order in which the Russians and the French are also making up to the Americans, the Manmohan Singh government largely put out that the deal was about nuclear energy. Sonia Gandhi hardly spoke on the matter at all.
From the start, the nuclear deal was so badly sold to the people that they hardly understood that the Americans were doing India a favour. Worse, only a handful were aware that the US, by enabling India to get a nuclear waiver at the NSG, was opening the door for India to do business with the rest of the world. This was never really only a deal with the US, but with the entire world.
Then there was the government’s shocking inability to play more than one foreign policy story at one time. Even as it was being attacked and besieged by the Left, the government could have deflected some of that anger by moving forward on other issues such as Pakistan, or even the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline.
If Manmohan Singh had travelled to his beloved Gah, the village in Pakistan’s Jhang district where he was born in pre-partition India, the odds are that he would have become television’s newest pin-up.
Remember the media hysteria that accompanied former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s bus ride to Lahore? Even when Kargil happened some months later, India never forgot that Vajpayee had dared to dream.
The tragedy was that his own establishment never allowed the PM to go to Pakistan. He could have changed the face of India- Pakistan relations — and still possibly can — by going to Islamabad and doing a deal on Siachen and Sir Creek. The former has been on the anvil since Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto put it together in 1989. But Singh never gathered the courage to go.
The point of this extended diatribe is that the government should have known that the nuclear deal was going to attract enormous flak, and that it was necessary to have several balls in the air to deflect that criticism. If Indira Gandhi was around, conceded a Left leader, she would have done the deal and told the Americans that they deserved a pat on their backs for finally acknowledging a 5,000-year-old civilization such as India.
By now speaking to Mulayam Singh Yadav, Sonia Gandhi is finally indicating that her government is willing to reach out, and touch someone.
Jyoti Malhotra is Mint’s diplomatic affairs editor. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org