The Left and the Nuclear Deal

With the signing of the Indo-US civilian nuclear cooperation agreement on the 10th of October, the curtain has temporarily fallen on this crucial issue. It is a significant reflection on the mainstream political forces in India that no principled opposition to the deal could be generated to defeat imperialist designs in the sub-continent. No doubt, the deal was formally debated during the ‘trust vote’ in the Lok Sabha and the government was able to scrape through with a slim and questionable majority. But most of the parties – such as the BJP, the BSP, TDP, etc. – that voted against the deal did so with the sole aim of defeating the government and force early elections to take advantage of the grim economic situation. Similarly, the SP’s last-moment support to the deal was solely motivated by the need to defer the elections in the face of the Mayawati-wave in UP. Only the official left – CPM, CPI, FB, and RSP – could be credited with sustained opposition to the deal. It is questionable, however, if the opposition even by the left could be viewed as principled. In fact it is doubtful if the arguments actually raised by the left hold water.

Some Objections

Once the deal was mooted in the infamous Bush-Manmohan meeting in Washington in 2005, a variety of arguments have been raised in print. Some of the more significant ones may be listed as follows.

  1. Even a civilian deal is not acceptable since nuclear energy is costly and dangerous.
  2. Any nuclear deal will adversely affect the non-proliferation regime in general and might trigger an escalated arms race in the sub-continent.
  3. A nuclear deal with US will bring India under a firmer strategic control by the US.
  4. A nuclear deal with US will jeopardise the prospects of oil and natural gas routes with Iran and Pakistan as well as with central Asia.
  5. A deal will adversely affect India’s military nuclear programme and, hence, will compromise its sovereignty and national security.
  6. At best, nuclear energy will contribute 10% of the total energy resources in future; hence, such a major strategic step is not warranted in view of the paucity of the outcome.

There are other objections to which we return.

Although each of the listed objections are plausible, none of them is definitive. First, extensive use of nuclear energy by countries such as France suggests that enough safeguards in the production and distribution of nuclear energy have been attained by now. Second, since India is not a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty for good moral reasons, consequences for the unequal non-proliferation do not affect India’s position. In any case, a civilian use of nuclear energy does not necessarily affect non-proliferation. If we are asking that Iran be allowed to develop civilian nuclear energy against US opposition, why should we refrain from doing the same ourselves? Third, India already has firm strategic alliance in military and political terms with the US for at least two decades. The visible shift from pro-Russian or non-alliance positions to a firm pro-US foreign policy has been in effect at least since the Narasimha Rao government, extended many times by the successive NDA and UPA governments. It is unclear what a nuclear deal will add to the existing alliance. Also, as unfolding events suggested, none of the objections (4)-(6) seem decisive. Given US control over world nuclear resources, a country cannot secure permission from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) without a nod from the US. However, once the permission was obtained through impressive lobbying, India is free to enter into any number of bilateral nuclear deals with France, China and others. Further, the actual clauses of the 123 deal make a clear distinction between India’s civilian and military nuclear facilities and the deal is restricted to the former. Finally, given India’s vast energy requirement in the coming decades, even a 10% expandable facility is not insignificant.

In the present world scenario, Manmohan Singh could be credited with playing India’s cards deftly. With the US economy in deep crisis, the unpopularity of George Bush, the escalating war in Iraq, consolidation of Europe, emergence of China and India, and the myth of impregnability of US broken after 9/11, US is no longer the absolute hegemonistic power it once was despite its military might. It is US that needs allies desperately, especially in Asia. Manmohan Singh could be viewed as exploiting this opportunity to temporarily side with the US to secure the deal and strengthen his position both in the party and the government. The erstwhile head of government visibly on leash has suddenly emerged as the undisputed leader!

Needless to say, the preceding counter-arguments should not be viewed as our support to the nuclear deal. In our view, the deal signals one of the most sinister and regressive developments in world affairs. The point is, the arguments advanced so far do not bring out these aspects with sufficient force.

Objections by the Left

More importantly, the left did not share these objections at least at the early stages of the controversy. At that point, the spokesperson of the CPM, Mr. Sitaram Yechury, reportedly held that the left was neither in favour nor opposed to the deal; they wanted to wait for the actual text of the agreement. Note that, except maybe for (5), the rest of the objections do not depend on a specific text; they are—albeit weak—arguments against any deal. So, the decision to wait for the text meant that the left did not share the ‘pacifist’ arguments sketched above. As for (5), the same objection was raised by the militarist BJP such that the left’s (later) objection from considerations of sovereignty turned out to be indistinguishable from the BJPs.

Much later during the controversy, the left started opposing the deal on the ground that the Hyde Act passed by the US congress in 2006 effectively establishes US’s unilateral control over the continuance of the deal. Note that the left was not questioning the value of nuclear energy, not upholding the non-proliferation regime, not even objecting to a deal with the US; it was only objecting to the right of the US to have its own domestic legislation. Arguably, the US could not have objected if the Lok Sabha adopted an act to the effect that India will stop purchasing nuclear material from US if US attacked Iran! As a matter of fact, as it turned out, India started signing bilateral deals with France and other countries even before the US congress ratified the deal. Dr. Singh’s clever ploy stands vindicated.

Only much later, i.e., after allowing the government to approach the IAEA with the unchanged draft deal—thereby enabling the government to buy time to secure a majority in the parliament without the left—did the left begin to raise the topic of US imperialism and the surrender to the military-industrial complex. Yet the point to note is that the character of US imperialism had not changed between 2005 and 2008, and the Hyde Act did not expose the US’s imperialist designs any further. It is difficult to resist the impression that the left raised the pitch of anti-imperialism only when it found itself outwitted by Manmohan Singh and his strategic advisors.

Principled Objection

Any cooperative agreement with the US which enables the US to continue its pillage of the world must be resisted by a genuine people’s organisation. As many writers have pointed out, the US continues to be the singlemost danger to humankind. As its economic might dwindles and it gets politically isolated in world affairs, it will not hesitate to use its monumental military and strategic might to enforce its designs on the rest of the world, Obama or no Obama. Even if we set aside its genocidal record over the last half a century, the US was engaged in decimating the nations of Afghanistan and Iraq while the politicians of India debated on the value of the nuclear deal. Except for a face-saving congressional piece of paper, the US does not need the Hyde Act to renege on international agreements. It has unilaterally walked out of ABM treaty, Kyoto protocol on environment, Biological warfare convention and much else in the recent years. It had attacked Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan without any international sanction. It has vetoed universal opposition to Israel’s aggression on Palestine for decades.

The list is long, and we would expect at least the left to take cognisance of recent history. Does it serve the policy of anti-imperialism even if a friendly agreement with the biggest terrorist state in history is seen to be of local advantage? Would it be politically correct for the left to approve of the deal if the Hyde Act were not enacted? In fact, would it be consistent with anti-imperialism if the nuclear deal assured unconditional supply of nuclear material for free?

In a close historical parallel, Subhas Chandra Bose approached Nazi Germany during the second world war to help the Indian National Army defeat British imperialism in India. He had at least admirable patriotic justification for doing so: why not exploit the opportunity offered by the imperialist war to free the people of India from British rule? Why should the colonised people of India distinguish between Germany and Britain?

The undivided left of those days rightly objected to Bose. They professed support to the allies until Nazi Germany was defeated. The German war-effort was justly viewed as an attack on humanity and, hence, the defeat of Nazi Germany was prior to the liberation of the Indian people. To put it differently, freedom for a people cannot be obtained by aligning with an enemy of the people. As a matter of fact, the left movement in India expanded manifold during the war, weakening thus the ability of the British empire to enforce its rule.

The current left in India seems to have forgotten, along with much else, its own anti-imperialism lessons of the past.


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