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.

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