Faustian Bargain

Continued from Previous Page

Why Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
Refused to stand up to be Counted - Part II

Well . . . I believe, when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties … they lead their country by a short route to chaos. A Man of All Seasons by Robert Bolt

In the arduous journey of life everyone confronts moments when circumstances clamor for compromise with principles you chose, to begin with, as the lodestar of your life. Some stay firm as Nachiketa did in Kathauponishsad. Some cave in to hammer out a working compromise. There are yet others ever too ready to jettison principles at the altar of pragmatism.

There is no area of life where this dilemma is more pronounced than politics. Understandably, therefore, it is in the political arena that Faust the protagonist of the classic German legend is feverishly at work.

Bargain with Faust

First, a word about the legend. Faust was a highly successful scholar yet deeply dissatisfied with his life. So, he made a pact with the Devil, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. The Faust legend has been the basis for many literary, artistic, cinematic, and musical works that have interpreted and reinterpreted through the ages so much so Faust and the adjective Faustian imply a situation in which an ambitious person surrenders moral integrity in order to achieve prestige, power and success.

This legend in English literature was popularized by Christopher Marlowe, who gave it a classic treatment in his play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. In The German poet Goethe's reworking of the story two hundred years later, Faust becomes a dissatisfied intellectual who yearns for “more than earthly meat and drink” in his life.

The Arrangement

The Goethe analogy is by no means applicable to an abstemious Manmohan Singh. But don’t forget bitch goddess success has myriad shapes and forms. His terms of the deal were different. Sonia Gandhi wanted UPA-I to remain entrenched in power, and for the full five-year term. The same was her stipulation for the UPA-II which unexpectedly rowed back to power. Hence the Sonia-Manmohan deal was simple: always remember the Irish Admiral who commanded: “Damn the Torpedoes, Full Speed Ahead.”

Today, Manmohan Singh in his eighties is being criticized for the skeletons tumbling out in profusion out of UPA cupboards. The man was in the know of all that was happening under his nose but was helpless. Ambition prodded him to remain entrenched in power but the terms of deal with Sonia Gandhi to create dual centers of power rendered him to be a helpless, hapless spectator.

May be in his reflective moments after his retirement he might be recalling Thomas Cardinal Wolsey in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII

Had I but served my God with half the zeal
I served my King, he would not in mine age
Have left me naked to mine enemies.

Sonia Gandhi has threatened to write a book to give her version of facts. Let’s wait to get enlightened. But when you read her story or even Mannohan Singh’s –should he also join in the race – do remember Akira Kurosawa’s incisive comment about that epic movie of his, “Rashoman”: “Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. This script This script portrays such human beings - the kind who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are”

What legacy did the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohn Singh deal bequeath for the country?

A Low Dishonest Decade

The ascendance of UPA-I in 2004 marked the beginning of what historians are likely to adjudge as, what describing the 1930’s, W H Auden called “a low dishonest decade.” The period between 2004 and 2014 which saw UPA-I and its second incarnation UPA-II, rule the country, was by all standards a wasted decade in our history with scams like scandalous 2G Spectrum sale of Raja and the Commonwealth Games loot by Kalmadi. It set new records in how low public standards can descend while a helpless government manipulated by strings pulled from a center of power which had no accountability whatever, watched helplessly.

By common consensus, UPA-I government was one the worst – if not the worst — we ever had. Ironically enough, it was headed by a Prime Minister who by common consensus is personally rated as above reproach.

And how do you explain that despite a far-from-glorious record of governance people re-elected UPA as if corruption and inefficiency are non-issues? Doesn’t that speak volumes for the apathy of voters to the sordid goings-on?

The economic mess that UPA-I and II bequeathed was because of the array of ill-conceived and inefficiently run entitlement programs (such as rural employment guarantee, food security and education), which achieved very limited welfare gains at the cost of enormous stress on fiscal capacity and foregone public investment. Dismal indeed was the freebie culture actively promoted for last few years by the UPA-II. In the economic history of the world states provide essential services (physical security, health, education, infrastructure, etc.) first before they take on their redistribution role. UPA policies were the reverse of it.

Take just one instance. As per a recent judgment, the Supreme Court has declared 218 coal block allocations between 1993 and 2009 to be “illegal and arbitrary”, ruling that the Central government of the day adopted a process which lacked transparency in the absence of competitive bidding. UPA governments bore the brunt of the apex court’s order as 155 of the blocks nullified were allotted during their tenure, including 134 allocations made when Manmohan Singh handled the coal ministry.

No wonder amongst emerging markets, India is the most macro-economically vulnerable, with a deadly combination of high fiscal deficits, close to double-digit inflation, and high external deficits financed by short-term foreign capital inflows that may even now be starting to flow out of the country. Today, we are being counted among ‘Fragile Five’ due to wrong policies and implementation failures during last few years.

Silver Lining

You’ll recall how in response to a growing Chinese nuclear arsenal, India conducted a nuclear test in 1974 (called “peaceful nuclear explosion” and explicitly not for “offensive” first strike military purposes but which could be used as a “peaceful deterrence,”) Led by the US, other nations set up an informal group, the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), to control exports of nuclear materials, equipment and technology. As a result, India was relegated to a pariah status within the international nuclear order. The UPA ended that.

Hence, the only silver lining in the dark clouds of Manmohan Singh legacy is U.S .– India Civil Nuclear Agreement or Indo-US nuclear deal popularly known as 123 Agreement signed between the USA and India, which ended India’s nuclear isolation. The framework for this agreement was the July 18, 2005, joint statement by then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and then U.S. President George W. Bush, under which India agreed to separate its civil and military nuclear facilities and to place all its civil nuclear facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards and, in exchange, the United States agreed to work toward full civil nuclear cooperation with India.

This deal took more than three years to come to fruition as it had to go through several complex stages, including amendment of U S domestic law, especially the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, a civil-military nuclear Separation Plan in India, an India-IAEA safeguards (inspections) agreement and the grant of an exemption for India by the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an export-control cartel that had been formed mainly in response to India's first nuclear test in 1974. In its final shape, the deal places under permanent safeguards those nuclear facilities that India has identified as “civil” and permits broad civil nuclear cooperation, while excluding the transfer of “sensitive” equipment and technologies, including civil enrichment and reprocessing items even under IAEA safeguards.

On August 18, 2008 the IAEA Board of Governors approved, and on February 2, 2009, India signed an India-specific safeguards agreement with the IAEA. The implementation of this waiver made India the only country with nuclear weapons which is not a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) but is still allowed to carry out nuclear commerce with the rest of the world.

The fuel used to produce atomic power can be recycled for reuse and this will, henceforth, be under direct supervision of IAPO. If India does nuclear test, this agreement gets cancelled and USA will take back all the machinery / equipment / technology supplied to India thus far.


Critics of the Agreement at home maintain it pledged India’s sovereignty and independence. After this agreement, USA will supply all fuel, machinery, equipment and technology to India for producing Nuclear Power.

All these years, we have been producing power from our twenty-two nuclear plants. It’s understandably a high security secret that how much nuclear power is produced, where is it supplied, and what research is being done. By signing this Agreement, we have to disclose all these secrets and also agree to fourteen of our nuclear power plants to be under the scanner of International Atomic Power Organization.

The opinion in the country was sharply divided and was debated in Parliament. UPA-II survived a vote of confidence by 275-256 after the Communists withdrew their support to the government over the bill. BJP, the then main opposition party, criticized the deal in its present form and wanted it to be renegotiated. However, the government remained steadfast on its commitment to the deal and refused to back down on the agreement, leading to the possibility of mid-term elections in India.

American critics call the terms of the agreement overly beneficial for India and lacking sufficient safeguards to prevent New Delhi from continuing to produce nuclear weapons. That the USA would ever enter into such an agreement defies imagination. The whole deal lacks complete transparency. There may or may not be God in details (as Gustave Flaubert assured) but there is devil, indeed, in details.

Ensure Transparency

For the country’s nuclear energy sector plans to be effective, the government should lift the veil of opaqueness surrounding its civilian program. The first step would be to establish an autonomous, transparent and accountable regulatory institution.

If our plans to drastically expand our nuclear energy sector have to be effective, and acceptable to the people at large, we should bring the country’s civilian nuclear establishment out of the thick layers of secrecy and opaqueness within which it has traditionally operated. The first step in that direction will be to establish a genuinely autonomous, transparent and accountable institution that is capable of regulating the country’s “nuclear estate.”

The words of Professor Kiyoshi Kurokawa, who chaired the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, are eminently appropriate in the Indian context as well:

“What must be admitted — very painfully — is that this was a disaster ‘Made in Japan.’ Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our group-ism; and our insularity … nuclear power became an unstoppable force, immune to scrutiny by civil society. Its regulation was entrusted to the same government bureaucracy responsible for its promotion.”

Overall Dismal Record

However, the overall performance of UPA-I and II was dismal and in some respects scandalous. Washington Post described Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as “dithering, ineffectual bureaucrat presiding over a deeply corrupt government.” The popular political historian Ramachandra Guha sums up the Prime Minister’s performance: “More and more, he has become a tragic figure in our history” – a man fatally handicapped by his “timidity, complacency and intellectual dishonesty.”

The irony is that Singh’s greatest selling points – his incorruptibility and economic experience – are the mirror image of his government’s greatest failings.

Manmohan Singh is on record to say that history would be kinder to him than his contemporaries. How would future judge him? The jury is out. However, I’m sure the Congress Party’s own history won’t be so kind to his record. Like Narasimha Rao, he is destined to end as the fall guy simply because the Queen Dowager and her family can do no wrong.

Original Sin

Most, if not all, of the UPA failures stem from the original sin which allowed the creation of two centers of power: the titular and the real. Manmohan Singh had agreed to the terms of the deal, namely, to remain content to be the titular head and enjoy its perks but let the real power center wield all control without any accountability.

Above all, in the so-called unrelenting pursuit of what he deemed coalition dharma, Manmohan Singh turned a blind eye on all cannons of parliamentary propriety in discharge of public duties by his Cabinet colleagues. Isn’t collective responsibility of the Cabinet a far more vital component of governance dharma?

Looking back at the Manmohan Singh legacy, generations to come will raise the glass to say a half-hearted cheer. Here was a Prime Minister who at least ensured the continuation of Indian democracy. Who knows what the dynastic rule would have done to the polity? And above all, he bequeathed a new adjective for the silent mode enriching thereby what’s called Indian English. Those called to attend meetings and conferences used to be urged to put their cell-phones into Manmohan Singh mode.” And his dentist would request the Prime Minister “At least in my clinic, please open your mouth.”

Gandhi’s maun vrat on June 3 1947 when the Partition Plan, vivisecting the country was accepted cost the subcontinent dear. The maun of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh led to UPA’s policy paralysis which, in turn, resulted in the stunted growth of the polity for a decade. But that was, don’t forget, part of the Faustian Bargain.


More by :  H.N. Bali

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Views: 3526      Comments: 1

Comment We all owe a great deal to Bali saab for his erudite value addition to Indian political commentary.

BS Murthy
08-Sep-2014 09:03 AM

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