Sunday, July 23, 2006

Reinvention is the mother of necessity

Byline by MJ Akbar: Reinvention is the mother of necessity

Governments tend to begin to lose the plot in the third year of their terms. That is predictable and comes with the calendar. The trouble with Dr Manmohan Singh’s government is that more than one plot is meandering out of control. In fact, there are so many plots around, that Delhi is in danger of looking like a colony.

The nuclear deal with America has been a principal focus of the Prime Minister. From 18 July last year, every step along the way has been greeted with relief and applause in Delhi, and all scepticism brushed aside as prejudice, every question dismissed as bias. When the committees of the American legislatures endorsed the enabling Bill in June, the reception in Delhi’s establishment was triumphant. If he has done it once, he has done it a dozen times, but foreign secretary Shyam Saran led the cheers. It was clear to the blind that new conditions had been imposed, but this was airily shrugged off as non-binding. This was the term used.

What were the conditions?

From 31 January next year, the President of the United States would provide the US Congress with a report on the rate of production of fissile material useable in nuclear weapons, the assembly of "nuclear-explosive devices" as well as the amount of uranium mined in India. Currently, these are secrets that the Prime Minister is not obliged to share with every member of the Indian Cabinet, and indeed does not. But from next year, we were ready to share it with every member of the US Congress! The deal needs annual approval, and that approval is dependent on Congress getting this report. I may be short of the kind of IQ required to run the Government of India, but one hopefully has basic common sense. What is non-binding about this condition?

The American President also has to tell his legislatures what he has done to "encourage India to identify and declare a date by which India would be willing to stop production of fissile material". What could be more specific than this? Other voices, including that of secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, have confirmed that America does not recognise India as a nuclear-weapons state and that this deal is a process by which India’s nuclear capability can be monitored and kept under control. The exact phrase used by the US Congress is "reduction and eventual elimination".

It soon became evident, that not only were the conditions binding, but the binding was going to begin pretty soon. According to a commitment given by Dr Manmohan Singh to Parliament, India would not accept inspections until all restrictions had been removed. That sequence has been turned upside down. The inspections come first. But the triumphalism of Delhi did not wane.

Suddenly, on the eve of Dr Singh’s visit to St. Petersburg in late July, word was put out that he would express some reservations about the deal to President Bush when the two met. What happened in the three weeks between Delhi’s welcome to the House committee conditions and Dr Singh’s visit to St. Petersburg?

In terms of public perception, the most important event was the anger of scientists who had fathered our nuclear programme, and the support they received from those who were still serving but could not, by the terms of their employment, speak out. Dr Homi Sethna cannot be accused of being partisan, or of bias, or ignorance. Ditto Dr P.K. Iyengar, another former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. Suddenly, they were not alone. But the Prime Minister has ignored criticism before, unwavering in his conviction that this is the agreement that will protect the nation in the foreseeable future. He also surely sees it as a historical achievement (as probably does the Bush administration, although for entirely different reasons).

The most credible assumption is that President Abdul Kalam has either written to or had a word with the Prime Minister, and that Dr Singh carried to Bush not his concerns but the President’s concerns. President Kalam has built up extraordinary credibility with the country, winning the affection of its children and the trust of its adults. There is nothing false about his humility, nothing artificial about his simplicity. If our presidential elections were direct, rather than indirect, President Kalam would be re-elected by a substantial margin. Add to this his professional reputation as a scientist and the leader of the team that gave us Pokhran 2 on 11 May 1998 (there are fascinating details in former foreign minister Jaswant Singh’s fascinating new book of memoirs, A Call to Honour, published by Rupa). Such stature is difficult to ignore. The President does not have executive powers in our polity, but he has every right to advise his government. President Kalam’s moral authority is his strongest weapon.

It is bad news for a government when a President has to intervene.

The Prime Minister clearly had to be convinced about the drawbacks, but the problem is elsewhere. Dr Singh has been very poorly served by his administration, and in particular the foreign office. It is India’s ambassador to Washington and the foreign secretary who should have flagged the problems, instead of placing their personal reputations above the common interest. Professionals lulled the Prime Minister, which is why the concerns took so long to reach him. We do not yet know what objections he has raised, but the need for vigilance has increased.

The nuclear deal is the key element of a foreign policy that is drifting in the shallows. The government has lost the plot on economic policy and domestic security as well, as is apparent from any day’s headlines. The Natwar Singh episode indicates that the government even tends to lose its balance. After months of completely disproportionate harassment in the name of investigation, and more than one jolly trip abroad, the authorities have found nothing. It is probable that the Pathak enquiry commission will exonerate both Mr Singh and his son very soon. The Prime Minister still cannot find a replacement for a foreign minister who could hold his own, and has no response to faintly-disguised taunts from Islamabad on the subject.

What should a government do when it has lost its way? Actually, the simplest solution is to stand still and ask for directions, but governments are terrified that they might be caught doing the obvious thing. Complication is more their style.

A reshuffle is not the recipe. The UPA government has to reinvent itself. Two years in power have separated the theoretical from the possible, and the possible from the practical. The basic doctrine of the Manmohan Singh government is a common minimum programme full of good intentions that no one quite knew how to put into practice. The Prime Minister needs to reinvent the route map. We all want economic growth with a human face, as it was quaintly called. But more attention should have been paid to the contours of the human face. Words are used at the highest levels of government, with no effort to flesh them out. You get the sense that the partners in this coalition do not have a common agenda, but a dozen private ones — including saving up for that very rainy day called a sudden general election.

The politics of options has begun two years before it should.

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