The Left parties in India, led by CPM, are parliamentary allies of the UPA government, led by Congress, and their support is essential to the survival of the government at least until the elections due next year. However, the left’s opposition to the proposed Indo-US nuclear deal is threatening to bring down the UPA regime well before its term ends, which will precipitate a fresh election. Based on current political and economic trends, the results of the election may not favor the UPA or the left. Inflation in India, despite surging economic growth over the last few years, has hit a new high in line with worldwide trends in the prices of oil and food products. The government has been forced to raise the administered prices of petroleum products, hardly a step that will increase its popularity with the public. The state governments led by CPM, in particular West Bengal, have also lost some of their popular support to the opposition in the wake of the Singur and Nandigram episodes and it is highly unlikely that the CPM could garner as many seats in the Lok Sabha as they did in the last general election in 2004.
From the standpoint of electoral arithmetic it is thus surprising that CPM as well as other elements of the left like CPI and RSP are choosing this juncture to destabilize a regime they have been propping up for the last four years, knowing full well that the beneficiary of their actions could be the Hindutva-led NDA, fresh from its recent first-time ever victory in a southern Indian state, viz. Karnataka.
At the time of publication of this issue of the Bulletin, various types of maneuvering are taking place among the parties both inside the UPA and those outside, like the Samajwadi party, to try to ensure the government’s survival even if the left parties formally withdraw their support. Whether the UPA survives for another year or falls, leading to fresh elections in the near future, it is not likely that the left parties are going to benefit politically from the stand they have taken on this issue. CPM brought out a press release on June 20 asserting that the nuclear deal has nothing to do with India’s energy situation; it is instead a cover for an Indo-US strategic alliance. The opposition and apprehension expressed by the left parties on the broader issue of India-US relations is understandable. Any development that would subject India to U.S. hegemony no doubt needs to be opposed. But it is stretching both logic and the facts to claim that an agreement, which allows India to participate in the international nuclear market, buy reactors and technology from, say, France and Russia or raw uranium fuel from Australia and Africa, reflects an “Indo-US strategic alliance.”
CPM’s press release claims at one place that “India’s growing shortage of energy has little to do with a lack of nuclear energy.” This appears to be in line with the position of the anti-nuclear environmental advocates who regard nuclear generated power in much the same way as a religious person looks at Sin. Later in the press release they go on to say: “Nuclear energy has an important place in India’s energy option…this should be based on our indigenous technology and our indigenous resources.” The latter claim seems to have been inserted at the behest of some of the pro public sector power advocates since all of the nuclear facilities in India are government owned and operated. India’s current “indigenous” technology of pressurized heavy water reactors, based on the Canadian CANDU design, uses natural uranium, in contrast to the majority of power reactors worldwide that use slightly enriched uranium.
India has very modest reserves of natural uranium, which are currently depleting. CPM berates the government for “closing” an existing mine and not opening new mines; it does not indicate that attempts to open new mines has met with considerable opposition orchestrated by the same anti-nuclear advocates whose positions CPM echoes in its press release. The statement also ignores the fact of the performance of “indigenous” nuclear technology; in almost 40 years India has erected barely 4000 MW of capacity, while South Korea, whose first nuclear power plant came up a full 15 years after India’s first plant began operation, now has about 20,000 MW of installed capacity.
In an increasingly globalized high-technology market, the benefits and costs of indigenization have to be carefully evaluated. There is hardly any virtue in cutting off your nose to spite your face or foregoing foreign technology based on the NIH (not invented here) syndrome. If India cannot participate as a full player in the international nuclear technology and resource market by joining the Nuclear Suppliers Group, it is very unlikely that there will be any long-term nuclear option for India to salvage. No doubt, the anti-nuclear activists would be pleased if this happened but would CPM also? It is difficult to both run with the hare and hunt with the hounds as CPM is trying to do by denying that nuclear has any relevance in the short term but is important in the long term. It is interesting that the Russian Ambassador to India stressed this fact a few days ago and recommended that India sign the deal as a prelude to its acceptance by the IAEA and the NSG. Russia, having agreed to grandfather the two Koodankulam VVER units due to go into operation next year, is naturally anxious to sell more reactors and fuel to India.
In the CPM’s view, only domestic coal has relevance to India’s electric sector and the IPI gas pipeline to the broader energy sector. No one will quarrel with the latter. If the Indian government delayed the Iran gas pipeline due to US pressure, it was a foolish thing to do but recent reports suggests that India is attempting to get back into the gas project. As far as coal-fired power is concerned it currently accounts for almost three-fourths of India’s total (utility) capacity with the remainder being mostly hydropower plus a small fraction of natural gas, nuclear and wind generation.
It is true, as the CPM press release indicates that only a “negligible amount” of oil is used in (central) power plants. But it should be obvious to anyone that grid power shortages have led to a huge increase in diesel generator sets, which are mushrooming in the fast-growing industrial, residential, and commercial sectors all over the country and must constitute a significant fraction of the total demand for diesel. It is intriguing that the CPM press release on energy policy fails to mention even hydropower, not to speak of wind, solar, or other renewable energy sources as potential future options. Putting all our eggs in the coal basket may be a short-term solution but it is also a very shortsighted one. Perhaps those who wrote the press release are unaware of climate change or global warming and the leading role of coal fired plants in exacerbating the greenhouse gas effect. If so, it would be good for them as well as the progressive movement in India if they could undertake a crash course in the subject.