N-Deal Ratification is Not a Good Idea

The nuclear deal has thrown up another contentious issue. It is the question of parliament giving its approval to an international treaty by ratifying it, as in the US Congress.

The Indian constitution, based on the Westminster model, doesn't have such a provision. Here, the government needs only to inform parliament about such treaties, the inference being that if a majority of MPs are against the step, they can bring down the government.  

This arrangement is based on the presumption that the ruling party (or alliance) enjoys a majority of its own. But what if it doesn't, as in India today it is dependent on the support of the Left parties which are not a part of the government? Shouldn't it, therefore, seek parliament's endorsement and not adhere only to the letter of the law?

On the face of it, there is justification for such an argument. In fact, this is exactly what is being advanced by the Left when it says that a majority in parliament is opposed to the deal since both the communists and the BJP are against it. Therefore, the argument continues, the 'country' is opposed to it. So, the comrades are in favor of a constitution amendment to make parliamentary ratification a part of the legislative system.

However, a close look at this proposal will tend to underline the pitfalls of choosing bits and pieces of the presidential system and incorporating them in a parliamentary one. The two are as different as chalk and cheese.

The presidential system, which is the preferred one in democracies outside the Commonwealth, is a faint replica of ancient monarchies. The only bow it makes to the modern world is that the 'king' is elected and doesn't inherit his throne.

The president has to secure the approval, therefore, of the elected representatives for his policies. In the US, the presidential system of which has come to be regarded as the model, this approval extends from the appointment of ministers, ambassadors and Supreme Court judges to the ratification of treaties and even the declaration of war.

However, since it is possible that a majority of the elected members, including those of the president's own party, may unite against him, there is a provision for the 'king' to exercise his veto power, in which case Congress has to pass the impugned measure with a two-thirds majority for it to become law.

What this reveals is the danger of selecting items from the presidential system in accordance with the cynical requirements of the present. It is patent enough that none of those who are in favor of making the Indian parliament ratify the n-deal will like to entrust the government with the veto power as well.

It has also to be noted that the Indian political system is too fractured at the moment to let parliament have the final say on international affairs. As government spokesmen have clarified, investing parliament with such authority would have stood in the way of India joining the World Trade Organization or concluding sensitive river water-sharing arrangements with neighboring countries.

The reason is that intensely partisan and even bloody-minded attitudes exert an inordinate influence on the polity. Nothing has demonstrated these regrettable tendencies more starkly than the debate on the n-deal itself.

As is known, the Left is opposing it solely on grounds of dogma. As the Leftist spokesmen have pointed out, their objections relate to the belief that any proximity to the US is harmful to the country's interests. Clearly, their preferred model for India to emulate is Venezuela or Cuba with their pathological anti-Americanism.

If the communists can at least be credited with the virtue of being guided by ideology, no matter how warped, the same cannot be said of the 'fascists', as the followers of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are often called by their critics.

The BJP's opposition to the deal is driven by 'envy', as a commentator wrote recently in The Hindu, although cussedness would have been a more apt description of the party's attitude. It would have liked to conclude such a deal with the US, but is now scared that the government has succeeded in persuading the US to punch, in the words of The Economist, an "India-sized hole in the nuclear rules".

The US, which earlier wanted India to cap, roll back and eliminate its nuclear weapons, is now ready to accommodate India as a legitimate nuclear power - a privilege it hasn't extended to Israel, its favorite power. China, too, has noted that "the India-US civilian nuclear energy agreement actually demonstrates its dream to become a big power", as the People's Daily has said.

Since all this cannot but be music to the ears of the Indian middle and upper classes, the BJP is afraid that the Manmohan Singh government and the Congress party may well grab large portions of the urban vote in the next general election.

Hence the BJP's beating of the ultra-nationalist drum by claiming that India is surrendering its sovereignty to the US, an accusation which is also made by the Left.

Considering that these groups, which are otherwise at opposite ends of the political spectrum, have come together in their objections to the deal is evidence of the unabashed opportunism that guides them. They are evidently led by calculations of securing votes by whatever stance they think will have appeal to the public with little thought to what might happen if the deal falls through because of their stubborn obstructionism.

It may not be besides the point to say, therefore, that none of these parties is capable of taking a considered and long-term view of the subject. Evidence of this primarily negative mindset was also available from the rowdy manner in which they disrupted the proceedings of parliament day after day, even creating a row when the prime minister was speaking on the nuclear agreement.

If this is the attitude of the 'national' parties and groups, one can well imagine how irresponsible will be the small regional parties with even more blinkered visions. It is no secret that the All India Anna Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam (AIADMK) is opposing the deal because the agreement has the support of the DMK, which is a part of the ruling coalition at the centre. Their reactions would have been the same if it was the other way round.

Similarly, the objections of the Janata Dal-United are based on the fact that it is not in power at the centre unlike its archrival in Bihar, the Rashtriya Janata Dal of Railway Minister Lalu Prasad. And if the Samajwadi Party and the Telugu Desam Party are against the deal, it is because the main opponent of these parties in their strongholds of Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh is the Congress. It isn't national but local considerations that guide them.

Given the cynical outlook of these parties - oppose anything which the government proposes - it will be disastrous to confer the power of ratification to parliament. In addition, the leaders of many of these small parties may not have the intellectual caliber to appreciate an intricate deal of this nature whose ramifications stretch back to Pokhran I in 1974 (when India conducted its first nuclear test) and look into the distant future when, to quote the People's Daily again, "as a big country with rapid economic growth, India is keen on gaining greater influence in international affairs".

(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at aganguli@mail.com) 


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