A general election could occur any time. Seldom has a government appeared more fragile. How long will it survive? And while it survives, how will it function? The catalyst for the current crisis is of course the Indo-US Nuclear Deal. The government has got into a hole. Will it get buried in that hole?
The BJP has moved privilege motions in both Houses against the Prime Minister for having misled the Parliament. If the privilege motion is upheld the PM will have to resign. The PM told the House: ï¿½(The Indo-US Nuclear) agreement does not in any way affect Indiaï¿½s right to undertake future nuclear tests, if it is necessary.ï¿½ This was reinforced by Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee who told the House: ï¿½There is nothing in the bilateral agreement that would tie the hands of a future government or legally constrain its options.ï¿½
But the US White House spokesperson Sean McCormack reportedly said: ï¿½The proposed 123 Agreement has provisions in it that in an event of a nuclear test by India . . . all nuclear cooperation is terminated, as well as . . . provision for return of all materials, including reprocessed material covered by the agreement.ï¿½ The report of this statement created uproar in India. It led the BJP to move the privilege motions. However, after 48 hours McCormack denied the statement and claimed that the media had misquoted him. He denied having referred to nuclear tests while talking to media. But the damage had been done. The earlier statement, whether correctly reported or not, reflected accurately the implications on the deal of Indiaï¿½s nuclear testing. It focused public attention thereby on what the PM had left unsaid in his statement.
True, going by the letter of the PMï¿½s statement, it did not deviate from facts. But in deciding on whether or not he misled the House, one enters a grey area. The PM stuck only to the letter of the agreement. He violated its spirit through what his statement purported to convey. Simply put, it is true that the agreement does not affect Indiaï¿½s sovereign right to conduct a nuclear test. But it is equally true that a nuclear test could damage the agreement fatally. The PM could have remained silent on the question of nuclear testing. Instead he put his foot in his mouth.
The quick sequence of events leading to this crisis is intriguing. On August 13 the PM made his statement in Parliament. On August 14 evening President Bush telephoned the PM to convey greetings for Indiaï¿½s 60th Independence Day. One does not know what precisely transpired in that conversation. Next morning, on August 15, McCormack allegedly made the statement which demolished the assurance about nuclear testing that the PMï¿½s statement had sought to convey. Apparently, McCormack spoke after a briefing to journalists. The denial of the statement came rather late. Could the statement and its denial be calculated? Surely, the impact of McCormackï¿½s statement on Indian public opinion after the PMï¿½s assertion in Parliament could have been foreseen. Was the timing of McCormackï¿½s alleged statement, shortly after President Bushï¿½s phone conversation with our PM, pure coincidence? Last week this column drew attention to powerful lobbies within the US that sometimes sabotage each other. Does the McCormack episode reflect such sabotage? Sections of Chinaï¿½s media are reportedly gloating over the incidentï¿½s fallout.
In this entire episode where does President Bush stand? The President is a Texan whose vision may be too narrow and talk too straight. He seeks a strategic alliance with India. If the Indian PM feels squeamish about acknowledging this, would Bush consider him a dependable sidekick to ride beside him?
If the PM had spoken with total candor, what could he have said? He could have said something like this:
ï¿½The need to conduct future nuclear tests is very remote. India remains committed to the ideal of achieving total nuclear disarmament as formally enunciated by late Rajiv Gandhi. The spirit of that goal was contained in former Prime Minister Vajpayeeï¿½s announcement of a voluntary restraint on future nuclear testing made in the UN. India was compelled to become a nuclear weapons power to safeguard its security. India now has a credible nuclear deterrent. Armchair strategists seldom appreciate the destructive magnitude of a nuclear bomb. India does not need bigger bombs. It needs a longer-range delivery system. That depends on missile technology. To progress on missiles India does not need nuclear tests. If exceptional circumstances do dictate further nuclear tests India and the US can review the situation. Implicit in the N-Deal is a strategic relationship with the US which already has close economic ties with China and close economic and military ties with Pakistan. The strategic Indo-US relationship could help persuade China and Pakistan to adopt more constructive policies. A sound strategic relationship is based on trust. India and the US must trust each other to make their partnership work.ï¿½
The PM was of course in no position to state this.
This brings us to the root cause of the crisis which could have erupted much earlier. The crisis arose primarily because of the UPA governmentï¿½s debasement of the so-called coalition dharma.
In democracies all over the world coalitions are struck between parties closest to each other on policy and on their ability to provide stable majority through numbers. On both counts the Congress and the Left are the worst possible allies. Their combined numbers provide a thin majority. Their foreign and economic policies are diametrically opposed. The Left is unabashedly anti-US and anti-economic reforms. The Left was capable of extracting political advantage from the alliance, which it relentlessly did for three years. But what did the Congress gain, apart from headache and heartache?
On the other hand, the Congress and BJP have similar foreign and economic policies. Together they would have made a comfortable majority rendering additional support superfluous. The Congress justifiably accuses the BJP of encouraging genocide against Muslims during the Gujarat riots for electoral gain. The BJP justifiably accuses the Congress of encouraging genocide against Sikhs after Indira Gandhiï¿½s assassination for electoral gain. Neither should, then, consider the other untouchable. Less than two years remain before the term of this Parliament ends. Neighborhood events might well make this Indiaï¿½s most critical post-Independence period. India desperately needs a stable and cohesive government. A Congress-BJP alliance could provide it. That government might be far from ideal. But it would at least be a government. In Indiaï¿½s national interest, should not then Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi hold talks? In addition to getting a government, India could thereby even develop a genuine opposition.