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Friday, Dec 03, 2021
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Opinion

Anatomy Of Defective Decision-Making

As India now moves towards the culmination of its nuclear pact with the US, Brand India stands diminished with serious doubts about the nation's ability to leverage the present economic and strategic opportunities to its advantage.

Anatomy Of Defective Decision-Making
Anatomy Of Defective Decision-Making
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53

While a degree of theatricality has always been part of the Indian political landscape, in the past few weeks Indian politics has put on a cliff-hanger of a show that appeared to reach new heights of absurdity. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh went into a sulk, refusing to meet people for several days. Old political friends became new hardened enemies. New alliances emerged, even as the old ones refused to die. Deadlines were set only to be extended at the last minute. And the government came on the verge of losing the confidence vote in the Parliament. It took nothing less than the threat of resignation from the prime minister for his own party to fall in line in backing him on the U.S.-India civilian nuclear energy cooperation pact, heralding the end-game for the treaty’s operationalisation.  

After months of indecisiveness, the government took the stand that it was ready to sacrifice a few more months in office by going ahead with the deal and forcing its main coalition partners, the Left parties, to withdraw support. This became possible only after the government managed to secure the support of Samajwadi Party. Such conviction along with the concomitant political manoeuvring was long overdue, and the only mystery is why the government left this crucial decision to the last minute. While the government has had more than two years to bring this deal to fruition, it repeatedly postponed making tough decisions so as not to upset the political applecart in New Delhi. And when it did decide to finalize the pact, it was forced to resort to all sorts of deal-making to save the government that has ended up sullying the relatively clean image of the Prime Minister himself with accusations of vote buying and shady corporate lobbying flying thick and fast. The government may have survived but its inability to make decisions at the right time has cost the polity dear. 

It was during the visit of  Prime Minister Singh to the United States in July 2005 that the U.S. declared its ambition to achieve full civil nuclear energy cooperation with India as part of its broader goals of promoting nuclear power and achieving nuclear security. In pursuit of this objective, the Bush administration agreed to "seek agreement from Congress to adjust U.S. laws and policies" and to "work with friends and allies to adjust international regimes to enable full civil nuclear energy cooperation and trade with India, including but not limited to expeditious consideration of fuel supplies for safeguarded nuclear reactors at Tarapur." India, for its part, promised "to assume the same responsibilities and practices and acquire the same benefits and advantages of other leading countries with advanced nuclear technology."  

The U.S.-Indian nuclear pact has virtually rewritten the rules of the global nuclear regime by underlining India’s credentials as a responsible nuclear state that should be integrated into the global nuclear order. The nuclear agreement creates a major exception to the U.S. prohibition of nuclear assistance to any country that does not accept international monitoring of all its nuclear facilities. It is a remarkable initiative not in the least because it reveals the desire on both sides to challenge their long-held assumptions about each other in order to facilitate a partnership that serves the interests of both India and the United States. 

Much to the consternation of the non-proliferation enthusiasts in Washington, the treaty gives India almost everything it had been seeking from the U.S. and the international community in the nuclear realm for the past few decades. It was surprising, therefore, that the Indian government found it difficult to generate sufficient domestic political consensus on this issue.. Whereas the Bush Administration was able to push the deal successfully through the U.S. Congress by putting its political weight behind it, it was in New Delhi that the deal came close to unravelling. India’s political waffling became a symbol of the fragility of India’s system of coalition politics and the government’s evident  inability to stand up for what it clearly believed to be in the country’s best interests . 

Although it was to Prime Minister Singh’s credit that he decided to go for one of the most far-reaching decisions that any Indian government has ever made in the realm of foreign policy, his political management of this issue left much to be desired. It is not clear why he did not take his party into confidence, as the lack of enthusiasm for the nuclear pact within his own party had been evident as soon as the deal was signed. Even more galling was the government’s romantic belief that the Left parties would somehow, through logical reasoning, come around to support the pact. 

From the very beginning, it was clear that the Left parties which have historically demonstrated strong consistency in their foreign policy would never support the deal. The Left parties do not support India’s nuclear program and have remained the most rabid anti-American segment of the Indian polity. Thus, the Indian government’s reliance on the Left to carry a deal that transforms the very nature of US-India partnership forward went against the grain of what the Indian Left has traditionally stood for. The Left, consumed as they are by a knee-jerk anti-Americanism, have failed to appreciate the value of ending India’s nuclear isolation. Consequently, they find themselves out of sync with the broader centrist opinion in the country today. 

It is possible that the government was relying on the main opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to support the deal at the eleventh hour. It was, after all, the BJP-led government that decided, after conducting nuclear tests in 1998, to commence negotiations with the United States on a broad framework that could bring India into the global nuclear regime—a government that was reportedly very close to signing a deal with the U.S. itself. But when Indian political parties sit in opposition benches, they tend to spend their time opposing the government even on those issues on which they might hold similar views. For the BJP, the deal is also a reminder of its own deficiencies in negotiating a similar pact with the U.S. in return for much less and so the suggestion  that it would negotiate a better deal if it comes to power.  

Realizing that time was running out, Prime Minister Singh finally decided to put his own prestige on the line to get the unqualified backing of his own party and to push the deal forward. This forced his party to reach consensus despite misgivings about the possibility of going to polls amidst rising inflationary pressures. But India has only a limited amount of time if it wants to get the deal signed and sealed before George W. Bush leaves office. While India has already managed to firm up a Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the deal would have to be taken up by the next administration in Washington if India fails to get a waiver from the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) by the end of this month. There are considerable doubts if the next U.S. administration will be as keen as the present one about giving the same terms and conditions to India. 

Indian policymakers like to assert that there is a broad consensus across political parties on foreign and security policy issues. The fracas over the U.S.-India nuclear deal, however, has made it clear that, today, the Indian political scene stands divided on fundamental foreign policy choices. Perhaps for the first time in India’s history, foreign policy differences between various political formations seem as stark as they are today and the debate on the confidence motion in the Parliament has done nothing to bridge that divide. While the Indian government has now made its move and its victory in the Parliament has given it the political momentum necessary to carry the deal to its logical conclusion, the dithering that stalled the treaty for so long in New Delhi has already done much damage to India’s credibility as a serious interlocutor on foreign policy issues. Put simply, for all its robust economic growth over the past several years, India is not yet ready for the status of a major global player. A cacophony in domestic politics may be a sign of a healthy, vibrant democracy but in foreign affairs it is making India look like a nation that is yet to make up its mind about the role it sees for itself on the global plane. As India now moves towards the culmination of its nuclear pact with the US, Brand India stands diminished with serious doubts about the nation’s ability to leverage the present economic and strategic opportunities to its advantage. The momentum of history may be on India’s side for the time being, but if the present drift in policymaking continues, India will soon lose all its luster as a rising power. 


Harsh V. Pant  teaches at King’s College London.

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