Sunday, August 26, 2007

Chicken Soup

Byline by M J akbar: Chicken Soup

Ronen Sen, India's ambassador to the United States, has sullied a long and distinguished career by an uncharacteristic outburst that reeks of personal frustration. Whether he will enter the history books remains to be seen. But I fear that his description of the deal's critics as "headless chicken" will enter that vast vault in which the foreign ministry's memory bank is stored.

Frustration is unprofessional in a government servant. It is a gesture of personal peeve, contrary to the ethos of governance, which must at all times be an expression of collective will. There are some unusual occasions that become even more demanding, as in the case of the Indo-US nuclear deal, when a decision must be raised above the limitations of executive authority and sifted through a national consensus, for it commits the nation to a course of action stretching ahead through four or five decades.

Ronen Sen, India's ambassador to the United States, has sullied a long and distinguished career by an uncharacteristic outburst that reeks of personal frustration. Whether he will enter the history books remains to be seen. But I fear that his description of the deal's critics as "headless chicken" will enter that vast vault in which the foreign ministry's memory bank is stored.
Sen did little for his reputation by compounding his mistake with a clumsy lie when he "clarified" that he was referring to the media rather than MPs. Most of the media has in fact been supportive of his deal, and, in Sen parlance, the greater proportion of journalists thereby fall into the category of chicken with head. In any case, journalists cannot stop such a deal. Members of Parliament can.

An interview, particularly one which has the stamp of a command performance, often reveals far more than it sets out to convey. The discerning try and read between the lines. But it is also useful to read behind the lines, into the mind of the nabob giving the interview. Stress and vehemence, for instance, are clues to motive or a hint towards the next step being taken. The Ronen Sen interview should be read carefully for reasons other than the use of an unhappy phrase.

There is by now a familiar pattern in pro-deal arguments that breaks down with a little analysis of inbuilt contradictions. I shall give only one example. Sen asserts that every concern about guaranteed nuclear fuel supplies has been met. He then goes on to stress that the Hyde Act, signed into American law by President George Bush, will govern American decisions. (We have accepted this qualification in the 123 Agreement.) The Hyde Act clearly specifies that fuel supplies will be conditional upon clearance from the American Congress, which will require a certification of good behaviour by India across a range of issues.

It is possible that the government might float another line (already put into limited circulation) during the debates in Parliament: that a bilateral treaty takes precedence over American domestic law. This is self-deception, to use the kindest phrase. If this is true, why was the law needed in the first place? The government of India has repeatedly characterised Hyde as the "enabling legislation" on the deal, which of course it is. After the 123 Agreement was signed on 23 July 2007, Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state and the chief American negotiator, said, on the record, that "we kept reminding the Indian side, and they were good enough to negotiate on this basis, that anything we did had to fall within, and respect, the legal guidelines that Congress had set forth". Those legal guidelines are what is known as the Hyde Act.

Negotiators on both sides are agreed, and have said so publicly, that the agreement must live within the parameters set by Hyde. Delhi has said that no provision of the Hyde Act has been breached in the agreement. How many more times do we need to hear such plain language in order to understand their import?

Sen also rules out any renegotiation of Hyde. This "cannot even be considered". If nothing can be altered then it makes a nonsense of the government's current argument that the next stage of discussions, in Vienna with the IAEA and later with the Nuclear Suppliers Group, should be allowed to proceed while the Left's concerns are addressed. The Vienna talks are in fact an operationalisation of the 123 Agreement, since they are a consequence of its provisions. The outcome of these talks will be amicable, since that is pre-arranged.

Perhaps the most revealing part of this interview, done by Aziz Haniffa, is the section in which Sen's name does not figure.

The interview is divided into two parts. In the first, Sen is quoted directly. Then, mysteriously, the quotes are attributed to "senior diplomatic observers", named once in the plural and once in the singular. These "senior diplomatic observer/s" are happy to be quoted, but very nervous about being identified. Why? Will they be imprisoned in Guantanamo because they are saying that no future government can abrogate this deal? Why were their quotes added to a Ronen Sen interview? Would it be wrong to surmise that these quotes came from Sen as well, but he requested that his name be kept out since he was being critical of a particular political party, and calling its position a "childish tantrum"?

This unnamed but very senior diplomatic "observer" named the BJP, but he should have been even more wary of the Communists. It is their opposition that has stopped the nuclear deal. The government made a serious miscalculation in its reading of the Left. Just because the CPI(M) supported a Congress-led government three years ago, it did not mean that the CPI(M) had become a wing of the Congress. The CPI(M) remains an ideological party, and there is a limit that it cannot cross without compromising its raison d'ĂȘtre. The Left's concern extends to the "strategic partnership" that is being developed by this government with the United States. What is interesting is the belligerence with which the "senior diplomatic observers" condemned any thought of the deal being abrogated by a successor government.

This fits in with the latest strategy being pursued in some circles of the Delhi government.The thinking is that Dr Manmohan Singh should go ahead and sign the deal even though he has lost the support of the Left on this issue. The alliance with the Left is dead for all political purposes, so why become hostage to its demands? However, there are still two stages of negotiations left before the deal can be inked. They can be hurried through with American assistance, but it will still need time, perhaps eight weeks or so. Till then the Left needs to be placated, or hoodwinked, with the argument that these interim discussions do not amount to an operationalisation of the deal. The Left has set the condition that it will withdraw support only when the deal becomes operational. The deal will become operational, it will be argued, with various degrees of ingeniousness, only when the Prime Minister of India signs a document either with Bush or the American secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.

The worst that the Left can do at that stage is withdraw support, but the Congress will be ready to go to the country on the strength of this "achievement". The Prime Minister is convinced that he will obtain nationwide support for the partnership with America, and that he can lead his redesigned coalition back to power after an early general election. Further, he will not be hampered by a leftist baggage in the future. In any case, since no future government can renegotiate what has been signed, the deal will survive even if the present government does not. India was shining for the last government. America is shining for this one.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Freedom's Another World: On 15th August

Freedom's Just Another World:
We still struggle with freedom—we have to defeat the sins within by M J Akbar

India became independent on August 15, 1947. When did Indians become free? Jawaharlal Nehru, an architect and master-builder of independent India, often remarked that Mahatma Gandhi's greatest gift to Indians was abhaya—freedom from fear. Some 50,000 Britishers held over 300 million "natives" in the grip of fear. Gandhi led them out of this prison, but only after he had lost his respect for the Empire. Till virtually the end of the First World War, Gandhi was a servant of the Empire, fawning and obsequious in his support of the war effort. Jallianwalla Bagh smashed that heavy illusion.

Once Gandhi had released himself from himself, he crafted the non-cooperation, or the aptly named Khilafat, movement between 1919 and 1922. It was a swivel moment of history. Gandhi could not end British rule, although he made the Empire's knees wobble, but he destroyed British mystique.

After 1922 it was never a question of if, but when.

August 15 is celebrated as Independence Day.We should rename January 26 Freedom Day, because that was the day that India first celebrated its freedom, in 1931. The Congress declared itself free on January 30, 1930, at its Lahore session, with the adoption of the Purna Swaraj resolution. Gandhi gave the party and the people time to commemorate this moment of liberation, and chose January 26 as the day for nationwide celebrations. Not many now know why the framers of the Constitution chose January 26 as Republic Day; We have enjoyed more than 75 years of freedom, as against only six decades of independence.

The amnesia is not accidental. We celebrate independence because we have protected it with pride. Freedom is quite another matter. Gandhi gave us freedom from fear, but that was only the first item on a long wish-list. We have freed ourselves from famine, a remarkable achievement of modern India; but we have not freed India from hunger, illiteracy, communal bias against minorities, economic exploitation, injustice, the legal and social indignity suffered by women, casteism.

We Indians have a rather awkward propensity. We keep declaring victory in the quarter-finals. And sometimes even before that: remember the parties we organised even before our cricket team had left for the World Cup? No victor's laurels could have been illuminated with more gauche glamour. A similar sentiment is evident in the triumphal hurrahs raised each day to economic growth. The government and the media are the main cheerleaders as both have limited themselves to the same constituency—the middle class.Growth is good, but there is a mine hidden in each letter of that word.

Growth can be sustained only if it is protected by a few adjectives, starting with equitable. Instead, a trickle-down theory is always tagged to this 9% growth, that some of the great froth at the top will trickle down to the bottom, eventually lifting the poor from their morass. What pernicious self-delusion! The poor need the benefits of growth most, and quickly. They won't accept a waterfall for those whose stomachs are sated, and a trickle for bellies bloated by hunger. Both justice and nature demand a reversal.

As do the Naxalites, of course. How often does the Indian Establishment need to be woken up by the crackle of gunfire? Faced with a problem, frightened by the price of a prescription, the Establishment retreats behind the thin security of an assumption. Punjab festered for decades, but we only saw the face of its agricultural wealth until the 1980s left us reeling. The tribals have experienced nothing in the sixty proud years of independence except neglect, exploitation and marginalisation, but we assume that they are too weak, or "uneducated", or docile forest people to make themselves count.Indian Muslims have got democracy, so we assume that they don't really need schools and jobs. Indian philosophy is non-violent and non-aggressive, so communalism can only be a passing flare. India is independent, so it can never be snared by economic or strategic neo-colonisation.

Our independence movement climaxed in a triumph. Our freedom struggle, which began earlier, is far from over. Defeating the British might have been the easier part, for now we have to defeat the sins within ourselves. Gandhi could not lead the freedom struggle until he had rid himself of illusions. Is there any Mahatma around who can liberate Indians from their own complacency?

-(Appeared in Outlook India - 20th August 2007)

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Ambush

Byline by M J Akbar: The Ambush

Instead of concentrating on poverty, Dr Singh concentrated on George Bush.Heads of government who have invested in Bush at the expense of their national interest are on a losing streak this year. Tony Blair has disappeared into insignificance so quickly that his decade in office already seems like a mirage. Any good he might have done for his country has been lost in that colossal and unthinking blunder called Iraq.

What is human about nature? Bystanders enjoy conflict more than resolution. Partisans may prefer peace, but an audience can be persuaded to pay good money to watch gladiators. Which street in the world ever stopped to applaud a serene couple strolling by, hand in hand? But let a husband and wife begin screaming at each other and a crowd will collect instantly. Let the couple be marginally familiar and a posse of journalists will arrive to turn them into minor celebrities. Such is the law of inhuman nature.

A divorce, therefore, will always get much more coverage than a marriage. Good news has only limited rights over airtime and newsprint. A marriage gets decent attention only at the time of nuptials. You might recall for instance the photographs flooded with smiles when the present UPA government was joined together in functional matrimony a little more than a thousand days ago. Such pictures aren’t news after 24 hours.

But a divorce can make news every day. There are so many issues to deal with. Who keeps the house after the split? That is a tough one since the house would never have been stable without the willing consent of both parties. The bickering can get intense over the most trivial detail, and each bicker feeds further demand from an insatiable media. Accusations get hurled across that nasty wrestling pit called a television studio. Mud sticks. Everyone has heard of some happy marriage, for such things are still possible. Whoever heard of a happy divorce?

Now that divorce proceedings have begun between the Congress and the Left, the best thing to do would be to make a quick and clean break. The House — the Lok Sabha of course — is now unstable. The partnership has become untenable.

The one thing that the Congress and the Left will not fight about is custody of the child. In three years the Manmohan Singh government has produced just one child, the Indo-US nuclear deal. The Left has made it clear that it has serious doubts about the circumstances of its arrival.

This government was elected because a majority of Indian voters rejected the fatuous claim that India was shining. That was a moment tailor-made for a new economic agenda that shifted the focus from wealth creation to wealth distribution. Instead, this government of World Bank economists insisted that wealth creation was, in a very fundamental sense, incompatible with wealth distribution.

It stuck doggedly to a crumbs-policy. If it ensured a feast for the rich, there would always be enough crumbs for the poor. This, in essence, is the trickle down theory advocated by the highest in the land, and applauded by all those given a free ticket to the table. One could sense that elections were around the corner when the Prime Minister rediscovered the poor during his speech on the sixtieth Independence Day. In Indian democracy, the poor get homilies, while the rich get policies.

If Dr Manmohan Singh had fought for and staked his government’s survival on an anti-poverty programme, no one would have dared to bring his government down. He would have won an election on his record, for the poor vote. How poor is India? Some startling statistics have just been released by a forgotten wing of Dr Singh’s own administration, the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector. Around 80% of India’s working population is in this sector. Nearly 80% of this group earns less than 20 rupees a day and 85% of this sub group is trapped in debt. By that usual sleight of hand we have drawn an arbitrary line to define poverty: Rs 12 a day constitutes the poverty line. This encourages the illusion that 77% of India is now above the poverty line. It isn’t that much above in any case. Nor is this poverty line index-linked to inflation. Twelve rupees a day buys much less today than it did three years ago. The traditional poverty groups remain where they were: 88% of Scheduled Tribes and Castes, 80% of "Other Backward Classes" and 85% of Muslims belong to the "poor and vulnerable" class.

If these statistics are lies the government should disown them, sack the author of the report, and produce alternative figures that indicate a different scenario. Dr Manmohan Singh cannot hide from facts by taking shelter behind silence.

Instead of concentrating on poverty, Dr Singh concentrated on George Bush. Heads of government who have invested in Bush at the expense of their national interest are on a losing streak this year. Tony Blair has disappeared into insignificance so quickly that his decade in office already seems like a mirage. Any good he might have done for his country has been lost in that colossal and unthinking blunder called Iraq. John Howard, the other great Bush ally, is heading for defeat in this year’s Australian elections.

Dr Singh always misunderstood the nature of the debate on the nuclear deal. That political fault line has now extended to the parties in his alliance, who did not have much to do with the decision but surrendered (unlike the Left) their independent judgment in order to hang on to office. Lalu Yadav, Sharad Pawar and M. Karunanidhi will be answerable to voters for a decision that they rubber stamped without examining the consequences.

For some reason that one has been unable to fathom, Dr Singh once called protests against the Bush visit to India "communal". If he thought that only Muslims were suspicious of his eagerness to accept any terms imposed by the Bush administration then I presume he has changed his views now. Any investment on such a scale, in both financial and strategic terms, cannot be pushed through by merely the will of a government. It has to be sifted through the process of national debate, particularly in Parliament. If the American legislature has the right to interfere in decision-making, and impose qualifications, why not the Indian legislature? Is the Indian MP less patriotic than the American Senator, or indeed more ignorant?

The logic of democracy travels in only one direction: the popular will. The Prime Minister pushed the pace by presenting his allies with a timetable that they were unable to accept.

There has also been a serious misunderstanding about the nature of government. India’s ambassador to Washington, an extremely capable diplomat, Ronen Sen, says that he has been privately assured that Washington will not react excessively if India uses the option to test. Alas, nations last longer than individuals. The life of this deal is estimated at around forty years. Ronen Sen will not be ambassador that long. Bush will not be President after January 2009. What matters is the law of the land and the written record. The law of America, by which every President is bound, is called the Hyde Act. It will prevail when a Democrat takes the White House from the Republicans. India’s national interest cannot be compromised on the strength of a private assurance. It is astonishing that a senior diplomat should make such a statement, when American negotiators and spokesmen have insisted that the law of their land will determine the course of their actions in any dispute. It is astounding that a government should accept this as some form of guarantee.

No marriage ever survived because of prolonged divorce proceedings. The time has come to go to a higher court than even the Indian Parliament — to the people of India.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Dependence Day

Byline By M.J. Akbar : Dependence Day

If America does move militarily against Iran, there will be continuous war from Beirut on the Mediterranean to the borders of India and maybe seep across as well. And if we do not cooperate with Washington in that conflict, will we get sermons from American candidates and instructions from the American administration, as our neighbour Pakistan is getting at the moment?

In July Mrs Sonia Gandhi took charge of an election that had suddenly become difficult, thanks to a candidate of her own choosing. Her nominee for President was a last-minute surprise with a dreary record and a dubious approach to public finance. And yet, within days, she split the opposition so comprehensively that it was bleeding after the result.

In August Prime Minister Manmohan Singh achieved a unique reversal. Within a week he not only united the Opposition that Mrs Gandhi had dispersed, but managed to lop off a vital slice from the coalition that keeps him in office. It remains to be seen whether the Left has fallen out, or still remains hanging in the alliance, but the threads that bind it to Dr Singh are looking tenuous. Dr Singh has had three years to prepare for the denouement of the Indo-US nuclear deal. The last stage was bungled because it was managed in precisely the same way as every other stage of the process. At all times the Prime Minister was making two simultaneous deals. One was with Washington, whose details were naturally kept secret. And the other was with Delhi’s closed-circuit elite, a quadrangle of politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen and journalists, on the assumption that their support, managed through ego-massage and more concrete benefits, would be sufficient to get domestic endorsement.

He never could quite comprehend that Indian nationalism had stronger foundations than the self-interest of the establishment; or that, in a democracy, the base can affect the top. Indians are not yet ready to celebrate sixty years of independence by handing over the next forty years to dependence.

He thought he could get away by a display of the text and was unpleasantly surprised when India asked for the context. The context was public knowledge thanks to the transparency of American democracy. The Hyde Act, with its extensive demands on the Indian right to independent behaviour, was one context, but not the only one. As V.P. Singh pointed out in a letter to the Prime Minister, we also need a proper evaluation of the cost-benefit ratio of civilian
nuclear power, and whether we can generate much more power for far less investment. V.P. Singh is not a foam-in-the-mouth adversary; he is among those who helped Dr Singh become Prime Minister.

A Prime Minister holds a political office. Dr Singh has promoted, and enjoyed, a carefully nurtured disdain for politics; he likes his bread buttered on both sides. Politics is the art of establishing harmony between policy and the people. Dr Singh was only ever interested in establishing harmony between his policies and the elite, the inmates of a circular road in Delhi. India is now letting him know it exists.Three years is sufficient time to garner the material needed for the construction of an image. Dr Manmohan Singh has identified himself with only two passions: economic growth and the Indo-US nuclear deal. There is nothing wrong with either on principle. There is a great deal wrong with both in practice. Both have serious
electoral limitations.

The policy of wealth creation as pursued by this government has never been adjusted for economic justice or equity. This emerges from statements consistently made by the highest in the government, that the poor will be beneficiaries of the "trickle down theory". Think about it. Cream is collecting at the top of the Indian pie at the rate of 9% a year. About 80% of this cream is swallowed up, to differing degrees, by perhaps a quarter of the population. The three-quarters below have to wait for a thin trickle which is lapped by various strata before anything can reach the depths of those below the poverty line. Common sense suggests that the poorest should be the first beneficiaries of wealth creation, as they live on the margins of hunger and the edge of anger. Instead, the poor believe that they have been left out of an Indian success story
to which they have contributed with sweat, and, in the case of that rising ulcer, the Special Economic Zone, with their land. They find themselves marginalised or even deleted from the distribution of rewards.

Those with swimming pools get a waterfall; those dying of thirst are fended off with a trickle. This trickle is the breeding ground for Naxalites. Young people do not live only on the fashion and celebrity pages of newspapers; there are young in hovels as well. And they vote.

Neither is Dr Manmohan Singh helped by his intense identification with President George W. Bush, a relationship visible in his slightly tremulous body language when the two meet. Let us keep to one side the fact that Bush has done more harm to his own country, and to the world, than any American President in memory. Or that people equate Bush with the havoc in Iraq. It is more important for us, who are still fortunate enough not to have been liberated by Bush, to understand the implications of Iraq. At issue is the meaning of sovereignty.

American policy under Bush has abandoned all respect for the concept of sovereignty, and is ready to go to war to further an American economic and political agenda. One no longer need point out that the war in Iraq had nothing to do with the war against terrorism. If there had been no resistance in Iraq, who could have prevented Bush from invading two other Muslim nations, Syria and Iran? This would have been the strategic centre of the "New Middle East".
Is India rather than Pakistan to become the guardian of the eastern flank of this New Middle East? Is India now going to become part of the politics, and indeed the wars, of the region? If America does move militarily against Iran, there will be continuous war from Beirut on the Mediterranean to the borders of India and maybe seep across as well. And if we do not cooperate with Washington in that conflict, will we get sermons from American candidates and instructions from the American administration, as our neighbour Pakistan is getting at the moment? Is this the meaning of the specific reference to Iran in the Hyde Act? It is completely unusual for a third country to be mentioned in legislation which is meant for bilateral purposes. Why was it done? Why have we not questioned it? Why is it being treated as something inconsequential? If it was inconsequential, why was it included, not in a statement, but in the law of America? The Hyde Act is not political posturing. It is the law of the land, and every President of America, present or future, has to abide by that law. Prime Minister Singh has already compromised the integrity of India’s independent foreign policy with his silence on the Hyde Act. There also seems to have been a message sent to the American administration not to roil Indian waters by stressing the Hyde Act. But this is too serious a business for fudge.

Dr Singh’s allies are beginning to wonder about the extent of the damage through decisions on which they were never really consulted, but accepted in order to keep the government going. I can’t see Lalu Yadav discussing the nuances of the nuclear deal, but he will be answerable when he meets his voters next time.The Left, which survives by thinking ahead, has realised that Dr Singh has driven the UPA to a crossroads. You can hunt with the Opposition hounds and run with the government hare on a flat course, not at a crossroads. Moreover, a crowd has collected. Bengal is watching Delhi as closely as it is watching Nandigram. When the street speaks sensible politicians listen.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

A Good Deal Walks on Two Legs

Byline by M.J. Akbar: A Good Deal Walks on Two Legs

Much to my regret, I cannot change my nose into one of the Seven Wonders of the World by calling it a pyramid. Spin, make-up or clever photography might disguise its excesses, but in the loneliness of the morning mirror, I have to admit that it is nothing more than a slightly protuberant outcrop on a fairly arid base. The Principle of the Nose extends to the text of agreements. The manipulation of words, or their contrived omission, does not deny fundamental facts.

There is still some way to go before the proposed nuclear deal between India and the United States becomes operational, but it is very clear that the two negotiating teams, and their governments, have agreed on one thing: that they will sell different narratives on home turf, even when the narratives contradict each other.

Delhi, to give the most obvious instance, is massaging the media and trumpeting the absence of any reference to the consequences of a new nuclear test by India as a triumph. Delhi is treating this as de facto American recognition of India’s right to resume testing if it so decides.
The 123 Agreement was announced on Friday 27 July. On 2 August, just six days later, Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state and chief American negotiator was asked by a journalist, Robert McMahon, in a recorded interview, "Some say that under the deal, if India holds a nuclear weapons test, the US would delay its own nuclear fuel supplies to India but the US would help India find other sources of fuel, which violates the spirit of the Hyde Act. What do you say to those concerns?"

Burns replied: "That’s absolutely false. I negotiated the agreement and we preserved intact the responsibility of the President (of the United States) under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 that if India or any other country conducts a nuclear test, the President — he or she at that time in the future — will have the right to ask for the return of the nuclear fuel or nuclear technologies that have been transferred by American firms. We’re releasing the agreement on our website on Friday afternoon (3 August 2007) and people will see that when they cite the text."
The answer could not be more categorical: "absolutely false". That is the American position, and it is being enunciated for the record, without any ambiguity. The message is clear, and it is loud. America will demand fuel and technology back, and probably not return the still-uncounted billions of dollars we paid for it either.

Delhi is pretending as if the Hyde Act does not exist, or at least is not binding upon India. But it is, as Burns has repeatedly and publicly insisted, binding on Washington.

Why is this a vital fact? Because of the nature of the agreement. This is not a two-way deal. India is not selling something of critical interest to America in return for nuclear fuel or nuclear technology. India is a buyer. It is a one-way transaction. America can sell only if India is in compliance with the conditions imposed by the Hyde legislation, which was specifically designed for this deal, and which makes no bones about its intention to place Indian nuclear activity as well as Indian foreign policy on watch. This is why Burns added, "…we hope very much that India will not conclude any long-term oil and gas agreements with Iran. The Indians, as you know, have voted with us at the International Atomic Energy Agency board of governors against Iran on two occasions". This is nothing to do with his personal views; he is enjoined, as a public servant, to place these issues on public record.

India has formally accepted this obligation in the 123 Agreement, a point that seems to have escaped the notice of some, but certainly not all, instant analysts. Article 2.1 says very specifically: "Each Party shall implement this Agreement in accordance with its respective applicable treaties, national laws, regulations, and license requirements concerning the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes."

The Hyde Act is the national law of the United States, and any perceived violation would give any "future President" — he or she, as Burns wisely pointed out — cause to declare the agreement null and void and demand American fuel and technology back.
I suppose we could retaliate by banning the export of mangoes to America, but there would not be much else that we could do.

The question is a simple one. America is the supplier; has it made India a supplicant?
Only a very foolish person advocates enmity as a national objective. It is utterly stupid to seek the hostility of America, a genuine great power, not because of its military might (which it is squandering in Iraq) but because it is the true fountainhead of technology, education, economics and democracy. India has exactly the same passions, and no two modern nations are better designed for true friendship. America became, in my view, the oldest country of the modern world because its democratic Constitution is the template on which nations must find their future in an age of liberal freedoms. India is the ideological leader of the post-colonial world, because our Constitution is proof that independence is the birthright of a nation, and freedom is the birthright of the people. But a sustainable friendship can only be built between equals. One might be tempted to wink one’s way past potentially conflicting interpretations of clauses, but this would at the very least sour relations between India and the United States.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, architect of the nuclear deal, made a small but perhaps significant mistake when trying to persuade us of its merits. He suggested that it would be unpatriotic to oppose it. I believe that the mistake was unintentional, for I cannot doubt his sincerity or his excellent manners. Perhaps the problem is that language can sometimes be an impediment to understanding. He probably wanted to suggest that it was in the national interest to accept this pact.

There is a way of ensuring national support: by making this a national, rather than merely a government’s, decision. How?

For a start, the pace of implementation must slow down. There is no reason why this agreement should be signed within four weeks. What is the hurry? The text will not change. America will wait until we have concluded a safeguards agreement with the IAEA and convince the 45 Nuclear Suppliers Group members to give it acceptable terms in civil nuclear trade. When India’s Parliament convenes the Prime Minister should take the initiative to set up an all-party committee that would be tasked to take evidence from experts, examine the implications of each clause and arrive at its recommendations by the end of the year. It will be a bipartisan process without rancour and politics, and each section of the House will be co-owner of the consensus. So far, the whole process has been handled by a small group around the Prime Minister, consisting primarily of bureaucrats.

This decision will influence Indian policy for the next half century, and must have the legs to walk for fifty years. A partisan approach would give this decision but a single leg, and how far can you travel with a crutch? The American administration has taken care to use the House of Representatives and the Senate to make it a bipartisan decision, compromising with the likes of Senator Hyde when it had to. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh can afford to do no less. You cannot run a marathon at the speed of a hundred-metre dash; there could be a grievous injury en route.

It is in the national interest to make the Indo-US nuclear deal a national decision.