Last week, despite all the chaos surrounding charges and counter-charges over alleged acts of graft, a news item out of Mexico caught the nation’s attention, albeit briefly. It dwelled on a supposed flip-flop by environment minister Jairam Ramesh at the just-concluded talks on global climate change in Cancun, Mexico. The minister was accused of selling out India’s sovereign rights and kowtowing to the global power that may be, the US.

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Is it really an open-and-shut case? Given the very esoteric nature of the subject, one would imagine that any debate would have to be complex and nuanced, and not steeped in polemic.

The charge specifically was that Ramesh had signalled India’s willingness to accept legally binding emission reduction targets—something it has always opposed. The argument has been that it is the western world, particularly the US, with its rapacious lifestyles and SUV culture that has led to the current pass where the world is witnessing what a group of scientists claim to be the adverse effects of climate change—extreme swings in weather including an unprecedented cold spell over Europe, severe floods in Pakistan, India and China and so on. So, if you have done it, then pay for it to clean it up.

A fair argument indeed. But we live in an unfair and unequal world. So what is good for one country need not be for another, and there is no guarantee of rewards for adhering to rules. This is more apparent in the case of India, which has often, very unfairly, found itself at the receiving end; its new stature is unlikely to reverse this.

Once this is taken as a given, the outcome of such negotiations cannot be judged purely by what is most apparent. The intangibles are important, especially if it holds the promise of delivering gains to the country in the future. And this, according to Capital Calculus, is the political economy of not just the climate change negotiations, but all multilateral exchanges going forward, from India’s point of view.

It is, therefore, very important for negotiators and the government to get the process right, which includes reaching out to all political fronts in the country. Given the growing trust deficit of the government, this is easier said than done. However, without the government getting the process right, critics are well founded in arguing that it has continuously retreated in the last two years without showing any tangible gains.

Looking back, for India, it has always been a case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. During most of the existence of modern India, the world was skewed in favour of the developed world, particularly the US—which was very often the self-appointed judge and jury. Now, when the country is in with its best chance and the maximum stakes in a rapidly developing global economy, the world order is tilting towards China, bent on imposing its brand of anarchy and belligerence.

The developed world is unlikely to sit back and allow this to happen without a fight. And, belatedly, it has woken up to the fact that the Chinese have converted their ability to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds into an art form. So, when it suits them, they are a developing country (especially when it comes to multilateral negotiating positions that benefit them), or a developed nation (when they are part of the permanent five in the UN security council). The US, in particular, is very keen to remove this distinction and treat China as a developed country; being the world’s largest polluter and the second biggest economy in the world should be automatic criteria for China’s exclusion from the ranks of developing countries—unfortunately, no. India has got caught up, partly by its own actions and mostly by circumstances, in this battle of attrition. If India’s policy wonks don’t get it right, then there is a risk of ending up as collateral damage.

At Cancun, it found itself isolated alongside China and the US—two of the world’s most polluting countries. This is because the rest of the world, including allies such as Brazil and South Africa, favoured legally binding emission cuts. The US won’t agree because it wants China to be a part of the deal, and the latter believes it is a developing country and, hence, cannot compromise its growth ambitions. India was caught in an unenviable position wherein holding on to its justifiable stance of not agreeing to a legally binding agreement was actually serving China’s interest and also risked being accused as a deal breaker.

The legalese of the final agreement is not yet clear, but India, in its in-principle consent, had sought to insert a line that said the cuts should be based on an “appropriate legal forum". This is nothing but a euphemism for differentiated treatment, but how it will keep China from taking similar advantage is not clear.

In the final analysis, it is apparent that India has significantly altered its stance on climate change. A polemic response only enables the government to further obfuscate issues. It is imperative, therefore, for a national debate. If nothing, it will help us understand the implications of the choices made on our behalf by Ramesh. But for that, Parliament has to function. A moot thought on the penultimate day of the sixth session of the 15th Parliament that managed to work only for 6% of its scheduled hours.

Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.

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