Friday, November 9, 2007

The N-Deal

When I served in the Sangha Office at Ananda Village, I would often travel to distant cities as part of my duties, giving classes or conducting kriya initiation. “On the road,” I’d usually buy a newspaper in whatever city I visited because it gave me a feeling for the area and a sense of what issues were important to locals. In Boston, I could say, “How about those Red Sox,” or “I see ‘Othello’ is playing this season” when starting a conversation in Ashland. I found people appreciate others taking an interest in whatever they, themselves, find interesting. I noticed too that once a bond of mutual interest has been established, even for mundane topics, conversation proceeds more easily to deeper levels.

Here in India, each morning three English language newspapers are delivered to the ashram—The Hindustan Times, The Times of India and The Hindu—giving us a window onto the political/social climate of India. At the Village I used to enjoy reading the Sacramento Bee over a cup of coffee in the morning—sports page, front page, comics—but I fell out of the routine when I moved to Rhode Island. In India I’ve started reading the newspapers again, and have found them to be a fascinating window onto the forces shaping modern India. As a foreigner, I have an emotional distance from the news, more so than when in America. It’s like distantly watching an extremely interesting play, all the while realizing that it is just a show of light and shade.

There is one particular issue that has been in the news every day for the last eighteen months that I’d like to tell you about. This is the nuclear treaty that was negotiated between America and India last year but has yet to be fully ratified by either country. If you find politics and current affairs boring, you might want to stop reading now. For the typical American, this is an issue that warrants next to no attention, but for India it is of major importance, dominating the headlines and editorial pages month after month. For me, the debate has been fascinating, but the most interesting and educational part has been watching the machinations, twists and turns of the political parties maneuvering for advantage. It’s been really educational. Whereas before, the acronyms of the various parties (INC, NCP, CPI, BSP, BJP) and coalitions were all a confused jumble, they’ve started to sort themselves out and give me a greater understanding of the complex array of opinion here. On the one hand I feel despair over the many intense differences fracturing the country, but on the other hand, I’m amazed at what has been accomplished against such tremendous odds. Somehow the country endures and keeps going.

To understand the N-Deal, as it is called here, you need to know a little history. In 1974, India conducted an underground test of an atomic bomb, followed in 1998 by five more tests of advanced nuclear weapons. People in India danced in the streets upon hearing the news. They were so proud. Pakistan soon followed suit with its own tests, thus setting the stage for a possible atomic confrontation between the two intense rivals. Both countries take tremendous pride in their status as nuclear powers. Unfortunately for them, the rest of world doesn’t share this view and has branded them as states that must be kept outside the “club” of countries (USA, Russia, China, UK, France) that can “legitimately” possess atomic weapons. In the atomic realm, they have become pariahs, with international sanctions placed upon both countries to block imports of nuclear material and any technology that can have a possible application in atomic weaponry.

For India, the sanctions were a price worth paying to achieve stature and strategic position vis-à-vis Pakistan and China. As a post-colonial country, India is very nationalistic and touchy about any outside power imposing its will upon it, it rebels against whatever appears to be outside interferance, and prides itself on its ability to indigenously develop industry and technologies. This was a strength displayed by the Swadeshi (self sufficiency) movement in its struggle for independence from the British, and it still carries great moral force. Because it has large deposits of uranium and thorium and world class scientists, it began development of its own program of civilian and military nuclear reactors, thumbing its nose to those who would constrain it. They see little contradiction between this policy and its sometimes self-righteous positioning of itself on the moral high ground in most matters of international affairs.

In the ten years since those tests in 1998, the political climate in both India and the outside world has evolved. India has become a global economic power and its international isolation has begun to pinch. It aspires to be recognized and treated as an equal by the “great powers” and seeks a seat on the UN Security Council. The US wants India to assume more of a leadership role in Asia and as a counterbalance to China. Its economy is booming and sees its inability to acquire high-end technology as a growing hindrance to local development of high-tech industry. Energy shortages are rampant and projected to get worse. The demand and cost of fossil fuel is skyrocketing and pollution levels are already some of the worst in the world. The country’s energy sector can’t keep pace with growth and both India and China are coming under pressure to control carbon emissions.

To meet the challenge of energy demand, India has plans for a major expansion of nuclear power, but without importation of nuclear fuel, there is no chance for it to meet its target. For many reasons and to end its political isolation, India and the United States entered into a round of negotiations that would allow the two countries to redefine India’s relationship with America and, by extension, the rest of the global community. The US promised to intercede on India’s behalf with the international community. Negotiations proceeded in 2005 and 2006, culminating in a state visit to India by President Bush last year and return visits to America by Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister of India.

Many neutral observers felt that India had won major concessions from America, but nevertheless, after multiple rounds of hard international negotiation, a treaty was initialed by both countries and sent to the US Senate for approval. There, certain significant conditions were added but after intense lobbying by the Indian-American community in the United States, it passed with a large majority. The treaty then passed to India for approval where, after so much early enthusiasm, hoopla, celebration and seeming support, it came to a grinding halt amidst huge acrimony and cynical political opportunism. There is now a parliamentary standoff and the treaty looks like it will be shelved. Dr. Singh’s political future and legacy is on the line and some say India’s reputation for being able to conduct its affairs with purpose and unified vision is tarnished. It is all so typically Indian.

The basics of the treaty are:

1. India would strictly separate its military and civilian nuclear programs and put its civilian reactors under international inspection. The military side would remain outside of this control.

2. India would be recognized as a nuclear state but not in the same category as the “Big 5.”

3. India would be granted the right to import nuclear fuel for its civilian reactors and civilian technology from the USA and countries belonging to The Nuclear Suppliers Group.

4. Both sides have a right to withdraw from the treaty with one year’s notice.

While wending its way through the US Senate, a couple of significant conditions were placed upon the original treaty.

  1. Should India conduct further nuclear tests, the US would potentially withdraw from the treaty and ask for the return of all US nuclear material returned.
  2. The Senate asked the State Department to periodically certify that India was not acting against US international interests. (I’m a bit unclear on this point.)

These last two points have caused the most trouble, although I seriously wonder if they are merely being used as reasons to bolster opposition that would have been there in any case. Neither of the two conditions is cut in stone but are a “sense of the Senate.” Should India conduct atomic tests, the US may very well withdraw, but not necessarily, depending upon the situation. You could say that it is putting India on notice that it might. As for the State Department certification, this is non-binding and inserted mostly to pacify US domestic interests. That said, certain elements in India take it as an insult and use it as evidence that should India sign the treaty, it will lose its independent voice and become America’s “poodle” in international affairs.

The result of all this is that it is looking like India will not sign the treaty and instead maintain the status quo. To understand this, you need to know that India is a parliamentary democracy and that no political party has a majority in Parliament. Coalitions must be formed and currently the ruling coalition is composed of the Congress Party with help from the Communist Party and small regional parties. The opposition is composed mainly of the BJP, the Hindu Nationalist Party. Dr. Singh is from the Congress Party and if he goes forward to implement the treaty, the Communist Party has threatened to dissolve the ruling coalition and new elections would be required. Nobody wants that. The Communists are ideologically opposed to anything that brings India and America closer. They feel this is but one more step in the creation of a strategic alliance between the two countries. Others say the main reason the Communists oppose the treaty is because they are funded, and strongly influenced (some say controlled), by the Communist Party of China which sees India as a rival and does not want to see the deal succeed.

The opposition of the other parties is also highly politicized. The BJP would probably be happy with the treaty if they were the ones to have negotiated it, but because they are not in control, they favor whatever will bring discredit to their rivals, the Congress Party. The small, regional parties have parochial interests. Many have Muslim constituencies who distrust the USA because of its policies in the Middle East. Others simply see no profit in giving support. The up-shot of all this is that the Congress Party is not willing to risk new elections and seems to be backing away from the treaty, leaving Dr. Singh hanging out to dry. Of course, everyone is asking why they didn’t know the political landscape two years ago before all this effort was expended. Read the newspapers and see what happens.

What I find fascinating about the whole affair is the shifting political alliances and maneuvers between the principle players. Each of the parties has supporters and opponents of the deal. I like Manmohan Singh and see him as a man of principle and integrity, as does most everyone in India. Unfortunately, he isn’t a politician by nature (he’s an economist) and doesn’t control his party. That role belongs to Sonia Gandhi, the dynastic heir to Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Indira’s sons. In a few years, her son Rahul will take the reins, dynastically taking his place in the line of ascent in the same manner as the Mughals. The difference being that now power to extract fantastic wealth from one’s subjects comes through the ballot box rather than by the sword.

Personally, I neither support nor oppose the deal. If I were India, I’d sign the deal and then buy all my fuel and sensitive technology from Europe so that if America ever withdrew from the treaty because of a test or something they didn’t like about my foreign policy, nothing would need to be returned. The deal opens the door to the world, not just America.

I like Dr. Singh and am sorry to see him lose face. I tend to view favorably anything that brings India and America closer because of Master’s predictions for the future, so rejection of the treaty is a setback, but it seems to me that India needs to get its house in order before assuming that place on the world stage to which it aspires. It definitely needs to pursue an energy policy that relies less on carbon fuels. I have become more sympathetic to atomic energy since being here but I think atomic power is only a transitional option. In the long run, greener alternatives are needed and if the deal is rejected, maybe those avenues will be pursued more vigorously. Contrary to what boosters assert, India is much too politically fractured still to assume a leadership role on the world stage. That will take time. An economic force it will be, but not a military or strategic power and maybe that’s good.

People often compare India unfavorably with China’s demonstrated ability to get things done and to steer a course consistently and purposefully. That usually leads to a discussion of each country’s respective political systems, democracy versus autocracy. I find it hard to call China a truly communist country anymore. Exactly what it is, I don’t know. Modern India operates on broad consensus and that precludes a capacity for bold action and long range planning. Things rarely get done here in a timely manner, if they happen at all. Regionalism is stronger than national interest and historically, India has been an inward facing nation.

Someone from Hong Kong and I were driving to the airport in typically chaotic traffic.

“Have you seen any policemen on the roadway?”

“No, I don’t think I have,” I replied.

“When’s the last time you saw any?” he asked.

“I can’t remember.”

“Exactly! But if you were in China, you’d see a policeman on every corner. Tell me, in which country would you rather live?”

With all its faults, India is still a great democracy and that’s sometimes messy, corrupt (that topic is worth an essay all by itself) and inefficient. But look at Pakistan, or Bangladesh or Sri Lanka. India may be chaotic, but no one ever says its oppressive. There is a saying in India that the country progresses only at night when the government sleeps. There is no doubt the people are dynamic and it’s sad their government doesn’t seem to serve them well, but this is a time of transition. Give India another fifty years and I’m sure the landscape will be very different.