Byline by MJ Akbar : Goodbye Nehru, Hello Bush
If Dr Manmohan Singh seems to be in office without being in power, it is because he has not been able to establish his authority on the four big offices of state that constitute the substance of power in any government: home, defence, external affairs and finance. The big four, Shivraj Patil, Pranab Mukherjee, Natwar Singh and P. Chidambaram, pay lip service to the Prime Minister and pursue their own agenda (or, as in the case of the home minister, non-agenda).
There is generally an iota of truth in any swathe of Delhi gossip. The certainties of Delhi are more dubious. The certainty this week is that differences between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi are slowly corroding and paralysing governance.
Logic suggests that this is unlikely. There has been a clear demarcation in the Congress between Church and State, with Mrs Gandhi in charge of political management and the Prime Minister entrusted with governance. Differences are expected in any human relationship, and inevitable when power is in play. The two may, for instance, have differing views on whether Satish Sharma should be inducted into the Cabinet or not. But to stretch that into a deathly Singh-Sonia confrontation is stretching the imagination.
Why? Simply because it is in neither person’s interest to damage the government and neither has shown the tendency, as yet, to be suicidal. Could this equation change? Certainly. If Mrs Gandhi is persuaded that the BJP has weakened itself enough to give the Congress an opportunity for a breakthrough in BJP territory (the contiguous states of Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Gujarat), she could well set in motion a process by which the allies would seem to have brought the government down and forced another general election. But that moment has not yet come.
If Dr Manmohan Singh seems to be in office without being in power, it is because he has not been able to establish his authority on the four big offices of state that constitute the substance of power in any government: home, defence, external affairs and finance. The big four, Shivraj Patil, Pranab Mukherjee, Natwar Singh and P. Chidambaram, pay lip service to the Prime Minister and pursue their own agenda (or, as in the case of the home minister, non-agenda). The first three consider themselves unfortunate, in the sense that any of them could have become Prime Minister instead of the incumbent, and see no particular reason why they should accept his leadership. The fourth, Chidambaram, the weakest since he has no political constituency, and little to advertise except puff notices in backscratch media, has been encouraged by the example of his peers to behave similarly.
Is it a coincidence that two of the big four have created serious problems for the government with its principal ally, the Left, or is that merely an accident? The Left is not playing charades over disinvestments in Bhel or the Indo-United States defence pact. Its anger is serious. These are issues of hard politics and policy. The CPI(M) cannot risk alienating the working class in Bengal, which is the foundation of its strength, and which provides, at a rough estimate, some 70 seats to the party in Bengal (take away those seats and the Left Front’s majority disappears). The Congress cannot expect the CPI(M) to accept a decision that affects its core interest in its citadel in order to keep an alliance afloat in Delhi.
Defence minister Pranab Mukherjee’s sunny smiles in Washington had clouded by the time he landed in Delhi. He tried to placate the Left, and indeed important sections of the country, with semantics. This was only a "framework" rather than a "pact". Intelligent ministers should not believe that either their opponents or their friends are foolish. A rose by any other name smells as sweet, but onions do not begin to smell like a rose if you rename them.
The objectives of the "framework" signed by Pranab Mukherjee and Donald Rumsfeld have been defined in Clause 3. The first is, "defeating terrorism and violent religious extremism". No problem with that. The second is "preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction and associated materials, data and technologies". This is more interesting.
Who defines "spread"? The last person accused of such nefarious behaviour, in case you’ve forgotten, was Saddam Hussein. The truth did not prevent the launch of a horrible war in which nearly two thousand Americans and a hundred thousand Iraqis have already died, a war which co-signatory Rumsfeld says might last another twelve years. Would we have been required to help America under the terms of this "framework" had it been signed three years ago? Saddam Hussein was also called a terrorist. Would we have been required to help eliminate him or remove him from power? These questions are relevant not only because of the past but because of the future. President George Bush and Rumsfeld believe Iran is in an "axis of evil", and accuse it of promoting terrorism and building nuclear weapons. Iran has an advanced nuclear programme that it says is for peaceful purposes. The dividing line between peaceful and not-so-peaceful purposes is thin. We claimed for decades that our nuclear programme was only meant for peaceful purposes until, to no one’s surprise, out popped the bomb. Supposing Europe, which does not want a strong Iran either, joins Washington in declaring Iran to be on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons. Are we then committed by this treaty (alias "framework") to join a campaign against Iran?
These are not idle questions, Mr Mukherjee; nor are they merely rhetorical ones. I presume the defence minister has noted that he has signed such a commitment twice, not only in Clause 3 but also in Clause 4E where he reaffirms that the two sides will "enhance capabilities to combat the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction".
There is a sub-text to this clause that has not been addressed. India became a nuclear power without America’s permission, or indeed without anyone’s permission. America imposed sanctions against India, which became irrelevant over time. However, has the United States formally recognised India as a legitimate nuclear power, or are we still in an undefined penumbra? This has to be clarified. Otherwise, we become, paradoxically, an illegitimate nuclear state, and must, by the terms of this "framework" act against our own interests! As I said, all we need is a formal statement from Washington recognising India as a legitimate nuclear power. Did Pranab Mukherjee raise this point with his host Rumsfeld?
Will Dr Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India, and therefore responsible for everything that his defence minister has signed, raise this with George Bush when he pays a formal visit to America in a week’s time?
The third objective should have been signed by commerce minister Kamal Nath. India and the United States have agreed to protect "the free flow of commerce via land, air and sea lanes". This is the ultimate homage that a defence minister can pay to globalisation. Pardon my ignorance, but I had no idea that government policy had become so committed to globalisation that we were ready to introduce such a clause in a formal defence agreement with the United States. I wonder if Mr Mukherjee checked with Mr Rumsfeld if America would, under this "framework" protect the free flow of gas in the proposed pipeline through Iran, or whether America’s definition of freedom is slightly different from ours. I presume we leave each other alone when our definitions differ. But what was the necessity of accepting a clause such as this?
Two lines in the "framework" need to be read together, although they are distanced in the document. Clause 4B says that the two countries must "collaborate in multinational operations when it is in their common interest" and Clause 4J adds that they must "assist in building worldwide capacity to conduct successful peacekeeping operation, with a focus on enabling other countries to field trained, capable forces for these operations". There is no suggestion, incidentally, that any multinational operation should be under the aegis of the United Nations; a bilateral agreement is sufficient. India has therefore formally replaced the Nehru doctrine of working in multinational operations only through the blue-helmet regime of the UN with the Bush doctrine that seeks to build alliances for intervention in third countries outside the UN mandate. Under the careful guidance of Pranab Mukherjee we have rejected Nehru and embraced Bush. Welcome to the future, boys!
It does not need a cryptologist to understand what this means. The second sentence is a direct and obvious agreement for Indian participation in what will be called the training of the new Iraqi Army and police (consistently being attacked by the insurgency). Against all this Mr Mukherjee has been waving the lollipop of co-production. He has not been totally candid here either. American defence production is in the private sector, and I would be pleasantly surprised to see transfer of technology from the private sector.
Did the defence minister take the Prime Minister into complete confidence about the intricacies of the commitments he has made? If he will not answer, the Prime Minister must.
Are the senior ministers indifferent to the Prime Minister because they believe that their jobs are in the gift of Mrs Sonia Gandhi rather than the Prime Minister? If that is true then the government of Dr Manmohan Singh is in trouble, because an animal with two heads will walk in different directions. To return to the classic analogy, the Church and the State work in the same country, protecting separate parts of a common interest. Mrs Gandhi named the Prime Minister. It was her right to do so after she revived the Congress. It is now the Prime Minister’s right to name his ministers, and hold their performance accountable. It cannot be in Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s interest if the government does not function. Who gains if Manmohan Singh fails?
If an animal with two heads cannot walk straight, then a cross-eyed Prime Minister cannot see straight either. Dr Singh has one eye on his duties, and the other on 10 Janpath. Realignment is essential for focus, and focus is critical for success.