India’s long road to Copenhagen has taken so many twists and turns that it is now hard to figure out which direction the government is facing.

An important round of negotiations on climate change will begin in the Danish capital on Monday. The most likely result will be a political agreement rather than a legal agreement: an important first step, but far below the initial expectations that these talks would result in a comprehensive deal on how to manage a serious global problem.

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

The government seems to have broken ranks with the rest of the developing nations by saying that it will voluntarily curb carbon emissions per unit of national output. There is immense confusion here. It is not clear what India is exactly trying to do. In a parliamentary debate on Friday, environment minister Jairam Ramesh once referred to carbon intensity and once to emissions intensity; they sound similar but the latter is a more wide-ranging parameter and includes activities such as farming that support the poor. Ramesh also slipped into a callous sort of neo-Malthusian mood when he said that India’s low per capita emissions are an “accident of history" and that India’s biggest failure has been “our inability to control population".

These can be dismissed as slips of the tongue, though such inadvertent errors are not what we expect from an intelligent and sharp-tongued politician such as Ramesh. The change in India’s basic negotiating position also seems to have the country’s climate change negotiators up in arms. What muddies the waters further is the Saturday statement by the US that suggests that the Indian government is following White House cues. The months ahead will tell us whether India has used the decision to voluntarily curb carbon intensity as a ploy to get the US to act or whether the Americans have trapped India into implicitly accepting that it, too, has a responsibility to cut emissions despite mass poverty.

Manmohan Singh and Jairam Ramesh are well within their rights to alter policy: Politicians do often take high-risk gambles. But they should explain how their climate change flip-flops meet the key goal of protecting national interest.

US pressure or policy confusion: What explains India’s flip-flops on climate change? Tell us at