Main Content
The Hindu (India)
Monday, September 3, 2007

What do Rahul Dravid's decision against enforcing a follow-on in the last Test against England at the Oval and some of the opposition to the final text of the India-U.S. civil nuclear deal have in common? A state of mind based on the fear that India is weak, vulnerable and capable of quick collapse against those out to defeat it. Surely, India now has got to the stage where, to quote U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt from his first inaugural address on March 4, 19 33, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself?

First to cricket. A chance to go two up, a lead of over 300 runs, and under two days left to play, weather permitting. An opponent thoroughly demoralised. A team with the will to win like Australia would have gone in ruthlessly for the kill. Its awesome record is built on the courage to fail sometimes. The Australian players and the game are the better for it. Dravid's decision to bat again, and the manner of his own batting in particular, showed the whole cricketing world that the Indian team itself believes there is no position, no matter how impregnable, from which it cannot be beaten.

Now consider the nuclear deal. The chief catalyst to it is that the world, led by the U.S., believes that India is an emerging major power worth cultivating, courting and treating exceptionally. If Indians themselves lack faith in their ascendant star, others will adjust expectations and policies downwards accordingly.

In the final round of negotiations, Washington conceded far more ground but without India getting everything it wanted. If the principle of negotiation we wish to adopt is ‘Everything I have is mine, all you have is open for discussion' (a bad American attitude to mimic), India will quickly become a laughing stock on the international diplomatic circuit. Diplomacy is all about bargaining, compromise and accommodation that by definition will not meet the maximum preference of any party. If the minimum positions of all are met, a deal is struck. Some minimum positions can be deal brokers because they are critical to the interests of at least one party.

In this case, the Indian side came away with most of its interests accommodated. Reputable figures have asserted that India can live with the remaining areas of disagreement.

One set of opposition is rooted mainly in instinctive anti-Americanism. For the communist parties in particular to claim the mantle of nationalists defending India against foreign interference requires real chutzpah. They have a long lineage of interpreting national interests through the prism of fellow foreign ideologues and subordinating India's needs to the interests of foreign communist governments. By contrast, the Chinese and Soviet communist parties were staunch nationalist. To adapt one of Winston Churchill's withering comments on a political opponent, when occasionally the Indian communist parties stumble over the national interest, they hastily pick themselves up, cast furtive glances to see who has witnessed their misstep, then hurriedly carry on as if nothing had happened.

As for the BJP - the party whose foreign minister personally escorted terrorists to freedom in the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan - it is difficult to escape the conclusion that its opposition is based on envy. This is a deal it would have loved to get when in power. But the BJP leaders need to be careful in their blind opposition. Just as the 1998 tests could not have been carried out without the decades of political and physical preparations by the Congress, the present deal could not have been achieved without the many rounds of intensive discussions led by Jaswant Singh and Strobe Talbot. The most sustained high-level dialogue ever between India and the U.S., this for the first time made senior American policymakers see the world through India's geostrategic lenses.

They will also offend their core constituencies. Those who will rejoice the most if the deal falls by the wayside at the eleventh hour and 59th minute are Pakistan and China, plus those non-proliferation ayatollahs who want to prevent anyone else getting the bomb beyond the five plus one (Israel) but make no calls for nuclear disarmament. The BJP high command might enjoy playing political games in Parliament; the party's supporters are not equally blind in gauging India's interests, including the business sector and the burgeoning middle class. The new generation of Indians is self-confident and keen to exploit all new opportunities. None offers more potential than a strategic-cum-commercial partnership with the U.S.

This does not mean that there is no basis for objecting to the deal, and that there are not serious people genuinely concerned that its detailed terms may sell India short. Indeed, the strength (depth and breadth) of the earlier opposition to the proposed deal had a doubly beneficial effect, in firming up the Indian government's negotiating stance and convincing the Americans of the political minefield into which Manmohan Singh had stepped and so gaining concessions from them.

The inescapable conclusion from recent international history is that the gravest threat to national autonomy and sovereignty comes from a weak and vulnerable economy. Conversely, a large, robust and vibrant economy will make the nation proof against any level and combination of external pressure. So that is the most important yardstick against which to judge the deal. It is worth reflecting on who is vulnerable to whom in the China-U.S. relationship, and why. Another two decades of growth rates matching the past decade's, and India too will be in a position where any effort to destroy its economy would be suicidal for the U.S. itself.

Again, this does not mean that we should put our faith blindly in any foreign power. I defer to no one in my criticism of the U.S., as readers of my previous (and no doubt future) articles will know. Churchill was quite right in saying you can trust the Americans to do the right thing ultimately - after they have tried everything else. But at least they will do it then, unlike other great powers in history.

Right to test

Regarding the contentious issue of the right to test, the first and most obvious point is that regardless of any treaty obligations, actions have consequences. The more momentous the action, more momentous are the consequences. That India had the right to test in 1998 did not stop all sorts of economic and technological sanctions being imposed. The deal offers the best breakout possibility from that technology denial regime and will help the country maintain the trajectory of significant economic growth.

Should India test again, international reactions will depend very much on the circumstances and context. If the test comes out of the blue without any visible provocation, the reactions will be harsh and punitive. If it is in response to testing by others, especially in the neighbourhood, criticism will be muted and offset by some understanding of strategic imperatives.

I used to be totally opposed to the nuclear weapon option for India. The moral majority drive to use military force by the West in Kosovo in 1999 - which overturned decades of international consensus on non-intervention - and by the U.S. in Iraq in 2003 shows that the post-Cold War world is worse for the security of many countries. They might indeed require deterrent capability against the predatory instincts of the major powers. But India could still give a clear, unequivocal commitment to a universal, verifiable nuclear weapons convention that banned the bomb for all. If such a convention could be negotiated tomorrow, India should sign tomorrow. This way India could reclaim some moral high ground from within the ranks of the nuclear powers. A world free of nuclear weapons is a better and safer world for all. India should persevere in this globally noble but also self-interested goal.

Finally, the political crisis within India has also shown how the U.S. political system is superior in one crucial respect. Parliamentary governments do not require foreign treaties to be approved by Parliament; the U.S. does, to the net benefit of the nation. This is something that all parties need to ponder over and, if necessary, amend the Constitution. There is something not quite right when the executive can make life and death decisions for the nation without having to obtain parliamentary consent. The old convention is quaintly and dangerously outdated, resting as it does on the myth of the executive being responsible to Parliament when the reality is that the executive controls Parliament.

This is no excuse to hold up the current deal retroactively. The urgency comes from the Bush administration having the unmistakable air of being under siege with its political capital haemorrhaging. Do we want India to join the Palestinians and Israelis in never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity?


About the Author

Ramesh Thakur, former CIGI Distinguished Fellow

The opinions expressed in this article/comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors and/or International Board of Governors.