Deal or Democracy?
The Indo-US nuclear energy deal may or may not happen. The contested debate that surrounds it has, nonetheless, brought to the fore issues and allegiances of far-reaching consequence.
Notwithstanding their claims of progressive neutrality, it has become obvious that India’s “premier” print and electronic media, especially the English language ones, have since the state’s shift to a “reform” agenda (1990) tended to tilt pretty whole hog to the right-wing.
During the Thatcherite tenure of the unabashedly comprador NDA regime (1998-2004), this tilt had an unbelievably free ride. This in the sense that there was little in the ideological direction of that regime that India’s corporates and the media that speaks for them felt called upon to contest or deride.
Sadly, so they see the matter, the fall of the NDA regime in 2004, as the then “India Shining” electoral campaign came crashing at the hustings in the face of abysmally harsh mass realities on the ground, yielded a government debilitated from the outset because it was obliged to take outside support from the Left to make up its parliamentary majority.
Wretchedly, the National Common Minimum Programme (CMP) drawn up between the formal constituents of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the Left as the blueprint for policy and governance announced a rather Keynsian welfarist agenda, even as it retained most of the “developmental” emphases of the earlier regime.
Grievously, the Left, now a millstone around the desired monetarist anarchism of the state at home, could be trusted to thwart at every step the larger goal of an amalgamation as a “strategic partner” with an American world order that presided over corporate globalization.
Thus, after what have seemed to the new consumerist class and their political leaderships three odd years of aborted opportunity, thanks no doubt to the Neanderthal mind-set of the Left, the Indo-US nuclear deal has come to be seen as the perfect camouflage to the project of reasserting that class aspiration, namely, a privileged spot in the neo-imperialist sun.
This segment of the Indian ruling class and the Left, deeply ironic as it seems, understand one another with pellucid clarity, even as ill-informed or half-baked innocents do well-intentioned middle class jigs around a vaguely-formed “patriotic” concern for India, all according to what movies they see or what clubs or kitty parties they frequent, or indeed what cricket icons they follow.
In other words, both the ruling compradors and the Left have known from day one that the Indo-US nuke deal was never just about an isolated agreement on a single issue between two sovereign states.
After three desultory years, the compradors see in the nuke deal a decisive new opportunity to defeat irritating social impediments to profit maximization, just as the American peddlers of the deal honestly admit that its charms lie in the business avenues it will open up to the US nuclear and arms corporates, even as its other consequences and the other agreements reached, or slated to be reached, between the militaries of the two states on defence and logistical inter-operability (“strategic partnership”) promise the realization of the American- Asian era.
Furthermore, the nuke deal, understood as the thin end of the “strategic partnership” wedge, may be trusted as a larger instrument or metaphor to breach decisively the lingering hold of the Indian Left via such residues as the Nehruvain legacies of a socialistic conscience, non-alignment, multi-polarity, a Westphalian allegiance to the concepts of national sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of nation-states. In exchange for, as the American Secretary of State was to throw as noblesse oblige—the promise of “greatness” that the US would bestow on India.
Thus, the class interests of the globalised Indian have required that the media and the government project those interests as the “national” interest.
Cussedly enough, the Left argues that in a country where, according to the government’s own statistics, 77% Indians spend less than half a dollar a day, while the list of billionaires among the top 3% burgeons on the other end, where more than two-thirds have no access to clean drinking water or sanitation or assured public health care, or the right to uniform elementary schooling, not to speak of the right to stable, gainful employment, it is not only laughable but rather gruesome to invest in the great- power agenda.
The Left insists, therefore, that the economic, political, and the environmental and social consequences-to-follow of the envisaged deal cannot be seen in separation from the pattern of “development” that the UPA seeks to unleash. And that this is a route not to national prosperity or consolidation but potentially to causing a deepening of the axes of disintegration which are everywhere in evidence among populations that rarely grace the TV screens, or become focal to considerations of the state.
Sensing that a “victory” conceded to the Left at this high noon of ruling class ambition can lead to a perpetuation of its relevance, perhaps even its spread, however tardy, beyond its “demarcated” bastions, senior scribes ensconced in positions of vantage in the media have been obliged to jettison their customary sang froid and come out with fists flailing.
Day after day, these worthies—with a few honourable exceptions that I shall acknowledge hereafter--, chaffing at the bit, have been failing to remain this side of abuse, rather borrowing thereby from the lowly politicians from the hinterland whom they never tire of denigrating for lack of finesse.
And, even as , expectedly, this falange of opinion-makers seek to dub the Left’s resistance to the nuke deal as a proxy performance on behalf of big brother, China, the more starkly obvious thing has been their own allegiance to and complicity with American corporate interests! Of course, we are to understand that whereas playing proxy for the non-American world constitutes “treachery” standing by Sam, self-evidently denotes high patriotism. Slow learners we.
Interestingly, what galls is that the Left has chosen the route of painstaking case-building on the issue rather than strident slogan mongering. And that their adroit verbal vulgarities hurled at the Left increasingly bite less even among the consumerist class that they ostensibly speak for than the arguments and analyses that the Left furnishes with regard both to the cost-benefit features and other negatives of nuclear power investment, and the details and implications of striking a “strategic partnership” with the US. Making matters worse, nuclear scientists of repute who have at one time or another been incharge of India’s nuclear development at the key institutes and installations have minced few words in underling the deleterious aspects of the deal.
(see Prakash Karat, Subordinate Ally:The Nuclear Deal and India-US Strategic Relations, Leftword, Delhi, 2007).
Nor has it helped the official case that the Left should make the explicit pronouncement that even if China were tomorrow to endorse the deal in the comity of suppliers called the NSG, the opposition of the Indian Left would remain in place. No better proof, you would think, that the Left genuinely believes that the deal will damage the national interest. Or believes that China as well may not be the most trustworthy guaranter of those interests.
Unable to dent the unity or strenuousness of the Left opposition, Indian media organizations and high-placed columnists have been taking the other route—to berate the Prime Minister for being “weak”, “spineless,” “politically non-existent,” and for holding on to his seat despite having “egg on his face.” So much for the culture of subtlety and sophistication. A gentleman prime minister who till the other was applauded no end for being above the piss and mire of politics is today being faulted for being after all a political novice and light –weight.
Another gimmick that the media has been unleashing is to effect opinion polls with utter dispatch, all of them showing how the Congress Party would stand to gain in parliamentary arithmetic were the Indian general election, due in 2009, to be held now. Unfortunately, thus far the Prime Minister refuses to take this hint as well, even when the polls he is told show that the Left would be severely mauled, and thus ejected from any new coalition. The point being: eject the Left however you will from the life of the nation. The only other thing ofcourse, in Brechtian phrase, would be to eject the people. Not likely to happen.
But an aspect of this conjuncture that seems of the highest consequence is the one that concerns the enticing sales pitch about democracy.
It is said that nothing would be more salubrious for the current world order than for the two most-best (in Shakesperean phrase) democracies to close in strategic embrace. The ironies here are truly befuddling, once these are seen. But let me say in passing that two gentlemen among the Indian media have expressed democratic anxiety with regard to the implications of sealing the deal: Veer Sanghvi of the Hindustan Times (oddly you would think), and Vinod Mehta of the Outlook Magazine. (If there have been others I may not have seen them.) This needs to be mentioned because their demur has value of another kind; both believe that the deal may not be a bad thing for India. What is salutary, however, is that both also believe there are systemic considerations that must not be overlooked.
Conceding for the moment that the Indian and American states are constitutional democracies (there will of course be a spate of argument as to the democratic content of those constitutions, and about the equity with which that content operates among the polity), it must be noted that the idea of democracy obtains variably in the two democracies, owing largely to the variable trajectories of formation.
Thus the central feature of American democracy has been its civil-libertarian ethos, and its emphasis on the rule of law. As to its representational legitimacy, its Presidential system remains overly centralized and inimical to the pluralist social dynamic on the ground. Just as the crucial factor in its Presidential electoral process remains the ability of aspirants to amass campaign funds—something that ab initio closes the door to citizens that can never hope to garner such clout. Equally, checks and balances notwithstanding, once elected to office, the American President rarely faces a circumstance when it has to yield to the Houses of Congress in the making of decisions. Given that the American Constitution mandates a two-party system, (that these tend to be tweedledom and tweedledee has never been more obvious than in the behaviour of the current Republicans and Democrats with respect to the Iraq invasion) the President in effect runs a corporate plutocracy unhindered by contesting political forces, whoever they be.
The Indian parliamentary system, on the other hand, lays heavy emphasis on wide-spectrum representation, increasingly so since the decade of the seventies. Of the three wings of the state, parliament is regarded pre-eminent in that it embodies the will of the people. Nor, even during these bad days, does the power of lucre alone, often at all, ensure entry into its portals. A wide spectrum of social and regional considerations can become instruments of electoral empowerment. As to the civil-libertarian aspects of democracy, and the operation of the rule of law, it may be conceded that these are late entrants to our democratic thinking. Citizens whose right to franchise is guarded as best as the system can are often victims of the grossest violation of human rights, both at the hands of the state and of those that have traditionally exercised social dominion over them.
Imagine now that the argument about the democratic embrace should be proferred at a point of time when the civil-libertarian ethos and traditions of American democracy are in shreds, and when the regime of law seems wholesale to have yielded to the arbitrary exercise of executive power. There is hardly a citizen in America today who is not a suspect, who is not under myriad forms of surveillance, and who may claim even the right of habeas corpus. Indeed, as Jean Claude Paye has recently pointed out, the “Military Commissions Act of 2006” puts an end to an older form of democratic state: “It is the constituent act of a new form of state that establishes war as a political relation between constituted authorities and national populations” (see “Enemy Combatant or Enemy of the Government?” Analytical Monthly Review, Sept.,2007, Vol 5, No.6, p.1)
Indeed, the details of that democratic collapse are by now legion in wide sections of the American mainstream media itself, and need not be belaboured here. Nor is there any dearth of erstwhile high officers of US government or Intelligence who bemoan the occurrence each passing day.
And here in India, we have the circumstance that the government of the day seeks to seal the nuke deal in the teeth of the reality that the Congress Party alone in parliament seems to favour it, while every other party in the house of the people vocally opposes it. Votaries of the deal thus seek to clinch the agreement as a sort of supra-democratic fiat, bypassing the sanctity of representation. The official recourse in so stark a situation to the legality that the Constitution at present does not require ratification by parliament only condemns itself as a grossly undemocratic technicality.
We are now to understand that while both countries make minced meat of the substance of democracy in their own several backyards, together in embrace they will inundate the war-torn world with democracy. Do laugh, if you will.
Look at the matter whichever way, and the nuke deal debate is one that involves pretty fundamental considerations with regard both to the ideological direction the Indian state may or may not take, as well as about the content and modus operandi of the Indian democratic system.
But here is what I find to be a great and potentially lasting positive of the contestation. It used to be said, especially by the BJP, that the NDA they led during the Vajpayee priministership set an example of how to run a coalition. As one recalls, most of that prowess had to do with canny considerations with respect to ministerial and other dues of various coalition partners, rarely if ever involving any contest of ideas or principles.
This is the first time ever in the sixty years of Indian democracy that a debate of such depth and rigour has happened within sections of the ruling conglomerate and among the polity generally. It can hardly be said that the intellectual and ideological opposition the Left has mounted has had to do with loaves and fishes of office, since they are not in the government to begin with, nor mean to be. Together, the Left and the Congress, in keeping that tough engagement going with research and case-building on either side, have put the substance of Indian democracy on a pedestal that recalls the debates that led upto India’s Independence.
One is tempted to say that reclaiming that tradition of debate may after all signify a far more consequential deal for the future course of Indian democracy than the nuke deal with America.