Turning the Indo-US nuclear intent into reality was never going to be easy. Last week’s events only strengthen this impression. Last Sunday, at Jhajjar in Haryana, Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi did some tough talking, only to abruptly reverse gears by Friday. If the deal not getting through will be a setback, policy indecision foretells more problems.
Caught in the pincer of domestic and foreign political entanglements, life is ebbing from the Indo-US nuclear framework with every passing day. There has been no forward movement since early August, when the text of the 123 Agreement was released. India is nowhere near signing the safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is mandatory before the US makes any forward motion.
Even if that happens, resistance to President George Bush’s foreign policy, in Congress, the Senate and American public opinion at large, is a big roadblock. With presidential elections looming and Democrats gaining ground to capture the White House in 2009, India might as well say goodbye to nuclear cooperation with the US.
More than that, it spells a foreign policy disaster for India. In the eyes of the world, India now appears to be a country that cannot differentiate between what is good for it and what is bad. The world’s only superpower virtually set aside the centrepiece of global nuclear regulation, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to accommodate India. From being a mere de facto nuclear power, India would have overnight become a de jure nuclear power. Pakistan, North Korea and Iran, which have waged their own battles to reach that point, can only dream of getting that status.
The government expended a huge amount of energy on securing the nuclear deal. Yet, the dilatory tactics of the Left ensured that progress remained excruciatingly slow. Now, there is great danger of the Left’s vision prevailing. The coalition partners, who always have electoral calculations foremost on their minds, were always edgy. The Left only had to delay and hedge for time before the former fell in line. With elections in many states around the corner and the parliamentary election less than two years away, the political cycle is way ahead of measures required for success on policy and reforms fronts.
All this casts serious doubt over what the Manmohan Singh government can now engage in. With a near-death experience, the pressure to indulge in populism will become inexorable. Efforts to secure as many Lok Sabha seats as possible in the next election, will ensure that all talk of economic reforms will now end. This, by default, will spell policy uncertainty. Investors may have doubts about India again. These will be for pragmatic reasons, not because India does not have economic dynamism.
Issues such as pension reform, insurance, deepening of agricultural commodity markets and so on will have to await the next government. Till now, for all its travails and skirmishes with the Left, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime was considered pro-market and pro-economic growth. That label is now in danger of peeling off.
With ministers from regional parties calling the shots, agriculture, telecom, railways and a host of other policy arenas are hostage to populism and atrophy.
Ultimately, the Left’s victory in causing policy paralysis is comprehensive. It is understandable. Unless India continues to be poor, Indians hobbled by uncaring bureaucracies and the country’s foreign policy horizon continues to shrink, the Left cannot remain politically relevant. It’s a sad spectacle to watch a geriatric ideology gain ground in a country with one of the highest growth rates in the world. It can only ensure that clouds always hang over the future of the country. It’s the Left’s day out, for now at least.