While several readers agree that the Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear cooperation deal should be put on hold under the present politically murky and changing circumstances, some readers have raised questions about what they perceive to be changes and even a ‘contradiction’ in The Hindu’s editorial position on the deal. One reader has specifically asked: “What has changed” between August 6, when the newspaper published the le ader “A sound and honourable 123,” and August 20, when it published the leader “Put the nuclear deal on hold”? We welcome this kind of serious public debate, which we believe will help clarify the key issues and their implications in a changing political context.
Here is our response:
1. The Hindu has endorsed, and continues to endorse, the 123 deal as “a sound and honourable agreement,” which reflects the fact that “the assurances provided to Parliament by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2006 have been fulfilled virtually in their entirety.” The newspaper’s editorial assessment of the key provisions of the 123 agreement is that they do provide adequate protection for both fuel supply to the nuclear power reactors and for the strategic programme. However, some uncertainties and challenges lie ahead, especially in relation to how the Nuclear Suppliers Group will respond when it is asked to change its guidelines to accommodate India to India’s satisfaction.
2. The editorial of August 6 took realistic note of a couple of limitations of the 123. They related to the United States ruling out supply of reprocessing and enrichment equipment and also “some uncertainty over the nature of the arrangements and procedures to be agreed upon before India can reprocess spent fuel.” Our assessment was that these problems could be managed given the safeguards built into the 123. The major caveat made in the August 6 leader was this: considering that the United Progressive Alliance government was continuing the same policy as the predecessor National Democratic Alliance government of “compromising foreign policy independence and aligning the country with the U.S. in the name of a ‘strategic partnership,’” the country should not allow the 123 to become “new leverage to pull India deeper into the U.S. strategic embrace.” The editorial concluded on the note that “while the Manmohan Singh government deserves full credit for negotiating a 123 agreement that is indisputably to the advantage of India’s nuclear programme and energy sector, it needs to be reminded that its breakthrough will count for little if it turns out that the hidden cost is a further erosion of external independence.”
3. While this remains our considered editorial assessment of the 123, the leader of August 20 addresses the murky and complex political situation that will determine the fate of the nuclear deal. The reality is that the UPA government finds itself in a hopeless minority on this issue. The main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and its NDA allies have aggressively attacked the deal as a sell-out of national interests and of the strategic nuclear programme, and look forward to making this a major election issue. All the constituents of the ‘third force’ bloc, the United National Progressive Alliance, are strongly opposed. The biggest supporting bloc, the Left parties with 61 MPs in the Lok Sabha, has demanded that the government should not go forward even with the next step (going to the IAEA) to operationalise the deal. The simple point is that a regime that finds itself in a hopeless minority in Parliament on a highly sensitive issue cannot act like a majority government! Economic and technical arguments do not necessarily score in politics, especially when they ride on the back of non-independence in foreign policy and non-transparency for much of the time the nuclear deal was in process. In the present political circumstances, the only way to resolve the crisis facing the Manmohan Singh government is to put the nuclear deal on hold and to meet all the objections and doubts democratically. Business leaders and economists might not be able to understand or appreciate this political necessity. “A Country is Not a Company” argument was brought in precisely to make this point.
4. Because that section of the Congress which is determined to go ahead with operationalising the nuclear deal is on a high horse, with blinkers, it does not appear to have grasped what is self-evident: “The guaranteed way of sinking the civilian nuclear deal, which this newspaper has editorially endorsed with some caveats, is for the government to go down, taking the 123 with it … given the deep political polarisation there is little chance of any other Prime Minister or government making a go of this deal in the conceivable future.” In other words, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s current posture of ‘I-must-have-the-nuclear-deal-or-I-go,’ if not reversed, will inevitably lead to the nuclear deal self-destructing, aside from other serious political consequences. This is the reality check our August 20 leader offers.
5. These reasoned propositions are the basis of our editorial recommendation that the nuclear deal should be put on hold and that the government could “pursue the deal by scheduling an earnest round of all-party discussions” to take in “objections, apprehensions, reservations, and questions relating to the nuclear deal that have come in from all serious quarters.” There is nothing sacrosanct about the timeline the Indian and U.S. governments have in mind. The outcome of the all-party discussions might seem uncertain. There is of course a risk of the nuclear deal falling by the wayside. But if the Congress party realises that the risk is to be weighed against the virtual certainty of the deal being buried if the UPA government goes down, it will make the right political choice. This is our editorial assessment and it can be seen that there is no contradiction between the leaders of August 6 and 20.
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