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.

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