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Home > English > Website archives > Rainbow of Crisis > The Left and the Indo-US Nuclear Deal


The Left and the Indo-US Nuclear Deal

Wednesday 3 September 2008, by VIJAY PRASHAD

In the 2004 general election, the Indian electorate denied the intransigent right-wing power over the State. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance lost out to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, although the latter were also short of a majority in the 545 seat lower house of Parliament. To gain a comfortable majority, the UPA turned to the regional parties as well as to the Left Front. Forged over the past three decades, the Left Front includes four parties, two of them Communist Parties (the CPIM and the CPI) and the other two left-of-center political formations. With sixty-one seats in the parliament, the Left was able to give the UPA its majority.

Pressure mounted on the Left to join the Alliance. Experience in earlier united front governments (in the late 1960s) has taught the Left not to join a government in a position of the junior partner. In 1996, when things seemed to hang in the balance, the various regional parties came to the Left and asked the Front to sign on, even to have a Communist be the Prime Minister; the Left at that time refused. In this case, there was no expectation that the Left would join the government, not only because of this long-standing policy to prevent being subordinate, but also because the Congress is itself a very unstable party that is now quite firmly controlled by a section who are pro-capitalist and who flog the line that India must now take its place alongside the US as a world power. The Congress leadership’s dismissal of imperialism and the cavalier disregard for the policies of neoliberalism made any formal alliance with the Left impossible.

Common Minimum Program.

Instead, the Left Front proposed a novel formulation: the UPA and the Left drafted a Common Minimum Program (CMP), an agreement of what is possible and what should be possible; to monitor this CMP, the two sides created a Coordination Committee; and with these elements in place, the sixty-one Left Members of Parliament voted to support the UPA government “from the outside.” The Left Front wanted to be the watchdogs of the new government, not their lapdogs (in the colorful phrase of CPM Politburo member Sitaram Yechury).

The Common Minimum Program, the CMP, was not a revolutionary, post-capitalist document. Instead, it laid out a broadly social democratic agenda. On the economic front, the CMP called for an increase in government expenditure to provide relief to the population, notably the rural poor. Women’s empowerment was to be fully supported, in every domain. The CMP pledged to ensure an economic growth rate of 7-8% “in a manner that generates employment so that each family is assured of a safe and viable livelihood.” For the pro-capitalists in the Congress, the emphasis on growth was crucial, as was the aim “to unleash the creative energies of our entrepreneurs, businessmen, scientists, engineers and all other professionals and productive forces of society.” Labor was to be given welfare, while professionals were to be given energy. But, the Left went ahead with the CMP, largely because of the national feeling that religious fundamentalism must be abjured. It would be wrong to characterize the entry of the UPA government as revolutionary, or to say that the Congress had a “left-wing mandate” (as David Harvey puts it in his Brief History of Neoliberalism). Kicking and screaming, the Congress accepted many of the suggestions of the Left in order to make the fractured mandate into a stable government. Knowing that it does not have the power to determine the course of the Indian polity, as yet, the Left too compromised with the UPA and accepted a social democratic agenda for governance. This was not a forced compromise, but a voluntary compromise.

The gains and losses of the experiment will take time to fathom. The Left succeeded in blocking what is now the normal inclination of the leaders of the Congress, many of whom ran key ministries in the UPA. The Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, has, for his generation, the typical background of a member of the Third World intelligentsia. Born in 1932, Dr. Singh earned his advanced degrees at Oxbridge, from where he went to work at the UNCTAD, a key institution of the Third World project. Singh was there from 1966 to 1969, when this UN institution was at its heyday under the leadership of its founding Secretary General, Raul Prebisch. From UNCTAD, Singh came to occupy a series of important posts in the Indian government, including Governor of the Reserve Bank of India and the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission. Here Singh managed the economy along the lines of import substitution industrialization, when economic dirigisme was the vogue in India. In the midst of all this, Singh was also the Secretary General of the South Commission, whose Report from 1990 stands as rebuke to everything that followed in India, most of it under his watch: from 1991, as Finance Minister Singh led the Indian state into the embrace of the IMF, to inaugurate the “liberalization” era. Alongside Singh, stood P. Chidambaram (now Finance Minister, but then Minister of State for Commerce), Montek Singh Ahluwalia (now Deputy Chair of the Planning Commission, but then Finance Secretary to Manmohan Singh) and C. Rangarajan (now Chair of the Prime Minister’s Economic Council, but then Governor of the Reserve Bank of India). These were the brains of the liberalization scheme, and they are now in charge of the “finance side” of the Congress Party. Their influence cannot be underestimated, and they came to power in 2004 with the very opposite of a “left-wing mandate.” They came to continue the “liberalization reforms” but minus the crony capitalism of the BJP. This is not to say that the UPA government could flout “national” interests: these continued to be in play, for instance, at the WTO Geneva meeting in July 2008, when the Indian team helped scuttle the Doha round (the Minister of Commerce and Industry Kamal Nath rejected the policies of the “survival of the fittest” for the “revival of the weakest,” a populist streak that also has its class angle, since it is at the behest of various agrarian capitalists within India, as well as the farmers’ lobbies).

Over the past four years, the Left functioned as a brake to the general thrust of this Liberalization Junta (the German Marxist Walter Benjamin said that Revolution is the emergency brake against the runaway train of capitalism). The Left blocked the privatization of profitable public sector companies, and prevented the wholesale privatization of sectors such as telecommunications, civilian aviation, and the retail trade, as well as held back the entry of speculative finance capital into the people’s wealth (that is, in the pension schemes and in the insurance sector). This was valuable work. But everything was not defensive. The Left parties joined with various people’s organizations to push for, and win, a National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, a Tribal Forests Rights Act, a Right to Information Act, a Domestic Violence Act, an act abolishing child labor, and much else (among which was the repeal of POTA, a draconian anti-terrorist law). The Finance Ministry complained that the Common Minimum Program was unaffordable and he lobbied to scuttle the main planks of the social democratic agenda. But he could not carry the day.

Subordinate Ally.

In terms of foreign policy, matters are also not fully clear in the Common Minimum Program. One sentence is unequivocal, and the Left took it as the bedrock of the understanding: “The UPA government will pursue an independent foreign policy keeping in mind its past traditions. This policy will seek to promote multi-polarity in world relations and oppose all attempts at unilateralism.” Later, the CMP acknowledges that the Congress-led UPA will pursue “closer engagement and relations with the USA,” but it says that this can only happen in the context of maintaining “the independence of India’s foreign policy position on all regional and global issues.” An early draft of the CMP called for the “strategic relations with the United States,” but at the urging of the Left, this was dropped.

In 2003, the Indian Parliament defeated an attempt to send Indian troops to Iraq, and early into its tenure, the new External Affairs Minister, Natwar Singh, gave an assurance that India would not commit troops to Iraq. At the same time, as a means to build confidence across the India-Pakistan border, the UPA government pursued a “peace pipeline,” a natural gas conduit that would run from Iran, through Pakistan, to India. The existence of such an important pipeline (which would bring Iranian gas to Indian markets, and earn Pakistan hundreds of millions of dollars in transit fees) might knit the livelihoods of these neighbors and consolidate various peace moves that had begun between Islamabad and New Delhi. But these two initiatives, and others, did not sit well with Washington. The Bush administration wanted relief in Iraq, and it wanted to intensify its policy of isolating Iran. But there was no joy, as neither Pakistan nor India budged on the pipeline and neither wanted its forces in Iraq, or Afghanistan.

Unable to move Pakistan, where the US leverage is considerable, the Bush team wooed India, where core elements of the Finance section were more receptive to its charms. From the very start of the UPA government, it was clear that the Liberalization Junta wanted to cement a close link with the US, to utilize a bilateral agreement with the US as the platform to bring India onto the “world stage” (viz. a permanent seat in the UN Security Council). When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came to India in 2005, she got what the US wanted from India, and gave little: India got no commitment on its seat in the Security Council, and the US would not go back on its commitment to sell F-16 jets to Pakistan. But more substantially, Rice lobbied against the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline, pushed its line on Iran to the Indians, and promised to help meet India’s energy needs to replace the gas. This was the first indication that the nuclear deal would be a quid pro quo for scuttling the peace pipeline and for giving the US political cover in the Third World forums in the line against Iran. At a press conference, Minister Natwar Singh was deeply uncomfortable when discussion came to Iran, hoping that it would fulfill its obligations to the IAEA (“We have good relations with Iran”), as Secretary Rice grimaced. The Liberalization Junta’s eagerness for an entente with the US came at a cost, whose down-payment was the Indian votes against Iran in the IAEA (2005). Natwar Singh’s rear-guard action, to insist that the Iran issue be dealt with as a procedural matter by the IAEA, was rebuked, and he had to resign by year’s end. The nuclear deal was always subordinate to the greater goal, which is to say, to “strategically ally” India with the US.

From 1947 to 1992, the Indo-US relationship was ambivalent. India played a very important role in the various United Nations forums, pushing for peaceful solutions to conflict as much as possible, as well as for the creation of multi-polarity in the world. With the fall of the USSR and the collapse of the Third World project, the leadership of the Congress, reflecting the new aggressiveness in the national bourgeoisie, made a willful analytical shift. The Congress leaders argued that now that the Cold War had ended, the world had become multi-polar. This was a curious elision of the increased aggressiveness of the US, now as the leader of the G-8, freely bombing small countries like Panama and pushing for a new trade regime through the Uruguay Round of GATT. Influential members of the Congress turned their back on the goal to produce multi-polarity. They declared that multi-polarity was the reality; the significance of this is that it denied the ambitions of US imperialism. The Congress’ new leader, P. V. Narasimha Rao argued that India would form a pact as an equal, not as a junior partner. The US, Rao’s team argued, saw India as a partner in the community of democracies, which is why the Rao government eagerly recognized Israel and signed a military collaboration agreement with the US. The top brass of the US and Indian militaries created executive committees and proceeded to conduct naval, air force and special forces joint exercises. In 1995, Indian officers went to the US armed forces academies to train with their peers through the Indo-US Military Cooperation Agreement. Due to US Congressional prejudices, as it were, the cooperation was briefly halted after India tested nuclear weapons in 1998. But they were quickly re-started, and intensified after 911. The BJP was in power in India, and it cultivated close military ties between the two countries.

The national bourgeoisie, who control the various big business enterprises and leading sections of the Indian economy, saw great opportunities in the new dispensation. These did not come from the military side of the emergent entente. In 1991, Rao and Singh began a process to transform of the role of the Indian State in and over the economy. Held back by pressure from the Left, the populist parties and people’s movements, the Rao team could not move at a full tilt. “Reforms” came in fits and starts. The government weakened the rules for foreign direct investment (FDI), encouraging capital from the Atlantic states to drift toward India. In 1994, US Commerce Secretary Ron Brown arrived in India with a delegation of US CEOs. They pledged $7 billion for various deals (in telecommunications and energy, largely. The leader in the energy team was Enron, whose Maharashtra power plant deal later ended in disgrace over charges of bribery and cost-gouging). FDI has increased quite dramatically ($162 million in 1990 to as assumed $40 billion in 2008). Large firms in India welcomed this investment, because it allowed them to leverage their already strong position further, and to extend themselves out of the country. Since 2000, for instance, India’s largest business house, the Tata Group, procured nineteen concerns outside India (such as Britain’s Jaguar and Land Rover, South Africa’s Neotel, South Korea’s Daewoo Commercial and most significantly, the UK-based steel giant, Corus). This assertiveness by the national bourgeoisie in India manifested itself in a confidence vis-à-vis the US, seeing it as an economic and so political partner. The national bourgeoisie, including the owners of the large Software firms and the media, derided all talk of imperialism and welcomed the new age. During Rice’s trip to India in 2005, she flattered this section saying, “It is the policy of the United States to help India become a major world power in the twenty-first century.”

To become a “world power,” in this rendition, is to break down the dirigiste state and to construct a neo-liberal one. The intellectual work for this exercise comes from the IMF, and it was implemented partially by the Rao-Singh team in the early 1990s. For the remainder, which had been blocked by the progressive opposition, the new intellectual framework comes from the US-India CEO-Forum, a group set up by a Bush-Singh meeting in 2005. Of the thirty recommendations in their “US-India Strategic Economic Partnership” document (2006), twenty-one are directed to India, which is charged with the removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers to all products. For all the blather about “mutual benefits of globalization,” the proposals asked for the end to regulation in India, mainly to serve US-based corporations and sections of the Indian national bourgeoisie. Much the same comes out of the Agricultural Knowledge Initiative (AKI), also launched in 2005 by the Bush-Singh meeting. Guided by agro-business executives, the AKI pushes for a revision of India’s patent laws and vitiates protections for small farmers. Both Indian (Dabur and Hindustan Lever) and American (Monsanto and WalMart) firms will benefit at the expense of Indian farmers.

The UPA inherited this dynamic. On the military front, it even extended it. Between 2004 and the present, military exercises between the US and India have been conducted regularly (the most recent, the Malabar naval exercises, will be held in October 2008). In 2005, as a consequence of these exercises and of the relationship built up between the military leadership of the two states as well as the political ties between the Congress and the Bush administration, the two countries signed a ten-year Defense Framework Agreement. The Agreement had four main points: it ignores the role of the UN in conflict resolution; it brings India into the conversation about missile defense; it makes India a bilateral partner in the defense of the sea lanes around China, thereby going against the idea of an Asian pact of the seas; it encourages India to buy its military hardware from the US. If there ever was a principled moment for the Left to have withdrawn support to the Congress-led UPA, this was it. While the Left opposed the pact consistently, it did not want to bring down the government after only one year; there was much on the agenda, the hard right had not yet been marginalized sufficiently, and it appeared that through careful maneuvering the Coordination Committee might have been able to block the continuation of this entente.

It was not to be. Over the past three years, the UPA government quite brazenly reached out to the Bush administration on the latter’s terms, all in defiance of the Left. The military relations have consolidated, and so have the economic ties. On the political front, India voted with the US against Iran in the IAEA. The nuclear deal, which also begins its process in 2005, combines the economic, military and political elements of the relationship. On the political front, it is a way to break India’s ties to Iran (sideline the Peace Pipeline, for one, but also to push India, through the US Congress’ Hyde Act to report to the US Congress on its relations with Iran), and it is a way to once more damage the framework of international law (in this case by creating a major exception to the NPT). Given that India does not produce nuclear technology, the deal also provides an incentive to US-based nuclear companies who are eager to dominate the Asian market for nuclear reactors (Japan and China have become big buyers). The Left conducted a principled and informed dialogue with the UPA from August 2007 to June 2008. The Left’s opposition is not only to the violations of Indian state sovereignty by this treaty, but mainly to the infeudation of India to the US policy of primacy.

On 9 July 2008, the Left parties withdrew support to the UPA government. Pressure from the serried opposition, on the one side the Left, on the other the hard right, and then in the middle the various regional formations, led the UPA to seek a “trust vote.” On 21-22 July, Parliament held a debate on the nuclear deal, and just before the final vote, members of the BJP ran into the well of the house with bundles of cash. They claimed that the UPA allies had tried to bribe them to vote for the government, or else abstain. Bribery aside, others had agreed to vote with the government in exchange for prized ministries (such as the Coal Ministry, which is a giant ATM machine; the minister gets to funnel contracts here and there, and reap the long-term “rewards” from this market). Rather than halt the process, the Speaker went ahead with the vote, and the government sailed through. Prabhat Patnaik precisely called the parliamentary vote a coup d’etat: “The fact that parliament was subdued not with tanks but with cash-for-votes does not make it any less a coup d’etat; nor does the fact that it was carried out not by a bunch of generals but by a bunch of bureaucrats or ex-bureaucrats (which includes the prime minister), and by persons whose life in politics, such as it is, has never included any contact with ordinary people.” He has in mind the Liberalization Junta.

In the wreckage of parliament, the UPA government’s Liberalization Junta began to crow that without the Left, the government “will take economic reforms forward.” Meanwhile, as soon as the vote came through, the White House hastened to congratulate Singh, and to pledge to do all it can in the IAEA and at the Nuclear Suppliers Group. While getting the endorsement for the safeguards agreement from the IAEA Board of Governor’s was easy, the NSG has been less pliable. The US has a timeline problem (the Democratic Congress seems to want to hold off on the final passage until they control the Presidency, so that they can take full credit for the deal). The revised text prepared by the US for a waiver for India from the NSG is likely to impose explicit conditions on India in accordance with the Hyde Act, which will be difficult for the Indian government to sell domestically. All this vindicates the strong position taken by the Left on the nuclear deal, particularly in making the point that this deal is not what it seems.

The Third Front.

The Left, meanwhile, has been busy crafting a “third front,” apart from both the Congress and the BJP. From 1947 to the 1970s, the Congress dominated Indian politics. A crack in its hegemony inaugurated the era of coalition politics. Unwilling to align permanently with either the Congress or the BJP, the Left has tried, over the years, to fashion a “third front,” not only in the electoral arena, but importantly in extending the world of political struggle and imagination. The early experiments in 1989 and 1996, were mainly alliances of convenience, the first to prevent the Congress from taking office (so that the National Front received external support from both the Right and the Left) and the second to prevent the Right from taking office (so that the Congress externally supported the internally fractious National Front-Left Front combine). In many ways, as far as the Left is concerned, the effort was not to create the perfect electoral combination, but to find a way to work with the various regional parties and social democratic parties in joint struggles to forge a united platform of principles. History does not move at justice’s pace.

It remains clear that large sections of the population have faith in the various regional, social democratic and even bourgeois-landlord parties. For whatever reason, these parties continue to outpoll the Left in elections, except in three states (West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura). It would be suicidal for the Left to avoid these parties, to take a sectarian position in regions where the Left organizations are weak. Therefore, it remains important to work with parties and organizations in struggles of common interest, to create new opportunities and new dynamics. The objective basis for a third front exists: in the 2004 election the combined percentage of the votes won by the Congress and the BJP was 48.69. The regional and social democratic parties, therefore, now have a large mandate if they are able to find a common agenda, and disabuse each other of the view that either the Congress or the BJP will operate in the people’s interest.

That the Left supported the Congress alliance on the national stage is significant; the experience allowed the Left to showcase an alternative set of national strategies (for secularism, for social welfare, for the strengthening of a regulatory state, for women’s rights, for social dignity in general), and to demonstrate the limitations of the bourgeois-landlord parties. The Left has also been able to show what the Congress and the BJP have in common, and how these commonalities are detrimental to the mass of the people. The main parties tried their best to isolate the Left when it withdrew support for the UPA, but even this did not occur. Through some deft maneuvering, the Left Front reached out to the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which began as a party of Dalits (oppressed castes) and now has pretentions to being a national party. The BSP has a history of alliances with both the Congress and the BJP; but rather than be used by these parties, it has cannily used them to expand its base in North India, and supplant them as one of the main parties of this most significant region (the “Hindi Belt,” where the Left has been unable to break through). It remains to be seen how effective this emergent front will be, and whether the BSP’s ability to leapfrog its allies will mean the Left will be the springboard, or whether both will gain in the creation of a new political dynamic in the country.

Vijay Prashad is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007. He can be reached at: