It cuts both ways when an unelected politician heads the government in a
democratic country. On the one hand, he may not be adept at the politicking
that becomes essential, especially when he leads a coalition government. But on
the other hand, unlike a grassroots politician, he can act with decisiveness
and foresight in so far as he can be impervious to public opinion.
Seventy-six-year-old Manmohan Singh, who heads India's coalition government,
has never won a direct election in his two-decade-old public life. India
provides for indirectly elected politicians to head the federal government and
Manmohan took recourse to that provision. This had never happened before as his
predecessors invariably sought direct election, which they saw as their mandate
Arguably, Manmohan is turning conventional wisdom on its head. No Indian
grassroots politician in his shoes today would so decisively press ahead with
the India-United States civilian nuclear cooperation agreement - popularly
known among Indians as the "deal".
It is patently clear that the nuclear deal is not an issue on which the May
2009 parliamentary elections can be won by the ruling Congress party to which
Manmohan belongs. And in pushing the deal, he has shown panache for politicking
that borders on adventurism by the rule book of any Indian grassroots
politician. Is Manmohan overreaching? Acolytes applaud him for "political
Yet, Manmohan's determination to press ahead with the deal and have it
formalized during the limited time ahead while US President George W Bush is in
office is not a matter of whimsicality. For one thing, the Congress leadership
is backing him. He is personally convinced of the imperative of transforming
India's foreign policy and of making the country a strategic partner of the US,
and, more important, ensuring that the transformation becomes irreversible.
Manmohan does believe in the raison d'etre of strategic partnership with the US
for India's rise as a major power. In his mind, his personal belief and the
country's interests seem to happily coalesce at this point in India's
The nuclear deal in the final stages The general impression is that time
has run out for finalizing the deal during Bush's - whom Manmohan described as
the "friendliest US president" - term in office. But Manmohan estimates the
deal is still doable. He is probably right. Manmohan hopes to formalize the
safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which
is a necessary underpinning for the deal, by mid-July.
He may set the ball rolling by personally apprising Bush of his game-plan when
they meet on the sidelines of the Group of Eight meeting in Japan next week.
The IAEA's formal ratification of the safeguards agreement would be forthcoming
latest by the end of August. The next step - obtaining a "waiver" from the
Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) - is expected to take about a month and looks a
smooth run, thanks to the NSG being a progeny of the US global strategy and
given Bush's personal interest in the deal.
That, in turn, enables Bush to send to the US Congress the Indo-US cooperation
agreement - 123 Agreement - for final approval by end-October or early November
at the very latest. Given strong lobbying by high-flying US corporate groups
that expect multi-billion dollar business opportunities and rallying by
powerful Jewish groups which root for US-India (and Israel-India) strategic
ties, and thanks to assured bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, the chances are
good that the deal will be home and dry before Bush demits office.
The Bush-Manmohan axis will be in full gear between now and January in
propelling the deal. The deal is already touted as a rare foreign policy
success of the Bush era. Manmohan sprung a surprise last month by pressing the
pedal when the deal was taken to be dead as a dodo for want of support in the
But he had never quite given up on the deal. He was active in the sub-soil in
his own dogged way. The political establishment resorted to clever stratagems -
dissimulation, maneuvering and back-room dealings - to shepherd public opinion
and virtually isolate opponents of the deal so as to eventually marginalize the
irreconcilable elements. The Congress party is enormously experienced in
government and its skill in political management is legion in India.
At any rate, Manmohan demonstrated he could give a run for the money to India's
tough politicians, while few expected the former academic-turned-economist and
World Bank official to have killer instincts. The Congress also has a strategy
to counter those who thought the deal would alienate India's 130 million-strong
Muslim population and that, in turn, would cost the party dear in the 2009
Indian Muslims and the deal
True, Muslim votes are scattered over tens of dozens of parliamentary
constituencies and can be decisive. Conceivably, Indian Muslims view the
nuclear deal through the prism of Bush's image as a crusader against Islam. But
the government has taken in hand a conscious effort to project that Muslim
countries regard India as an important partner and that the deal doesn't
jeopardize India's standing. The Congress spokespersons have been at pains to
underline no one should "communalize" the deal - coded expression to the effect
that other political parties shouldn't exploit the Muslim outrage over the
Manmohan government cozying up to the Bush administration.
Indian diplomacy is in full cry, wooing the Muslim world. The focus has shifted
from "Euro-Atlanticism" to the Middle East. Indian Foreign Minister Pranab
Mukherjee is currently visiting Egypt, having been to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and
the United Arab Emirates in April. India hosted a five-day visit by Syrian
President Bashar al-Assad in May. Manmohan is due to visit Saudi Arabia.
The icing on the cake will be Manmohan's high-profile visit to Pakistan, which
will have great resonance in Indian Muslim opinion. There is talk of an outside
chance that some sort of broad understanding may be reached with Pakistan over
Kashmir and even a Camp David-like peace process might become possible with
Bush's blessing (think Nobel Peace Prizes, etc). Any such development will
immensely boost the Congress party's popularity in India.
Meanwhile, India's National Security Advisor M K Narayanan visited Tehran on
Tuesday as the prime minister's special envoy. Mukherjee is expected to visit
Tehran at the end of July, his second visit in recent months. There is a
standing invitation to Manmohan to visit Iran, which is under discussion. The
government is conscious that relations with Iran have become the litmus test of
India's independent foreign policy in Muslim perceptions. India has the world's
second-largest Shi'ite population, but that apart, the Iranian revolution of
1979 caught the imagination of Indian Muslims and there is much outrage among
them over the US's standoff with Iran. Under US (and Israeli) pressure, India
was forced to mothball its ties with Iran in the recent years. Muslim opinion
in India was appalled.
US watchful of India-Iran ties
The government estimates that critics could be silenced if it came out as
keeping friendly relations alike with the US, Israel and Iran. For this to
happen, Tehran must cooperate. Indian diplomacy keeps underscoring to Tehran
that India is raring to go forward with "strategic" cooperation with Iran. On a
parallel track, Delhi is constantly nudging Washington and Jerusalem towards an
awakening that the Manmohan government has been carefully delimiting the
parameters of its strategic cooperation with Tehran in sensitive areas and,
therefore, there is no need of arm-twisting publicly.
It is a delicate balancing act, but India's high-caliber diplomats can cope
with it. Delhi hopes Washington will realize its brazen pressure tactic hardly
takes note of Manmohan's domestic compulsions. Delhi sizes up that the US
engagement of Iran is now a matter of time. On his arrival in Tehran on Monday,
Narayanan told the media India would be willing to mediate between Iran and the
international community. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Majlis
(parliament) speaker Ali Larijani received him.
Somehow, the nuclear deal and the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project have
become intertwined. Recently, the chairman of the sub-committee on the Middle
East and South Asia in the US House of Representatives, Congressman Gary
Ackerman, warned he was having a "very difficult time understanding why the
government of India continues to pursue a pipeline with Iran and Pakistan".
Top Indian officials fail to respond to such intrusive remarks, but keep
articulating interest in the pipeline. This may appear "strategic defiance" of
Washington and has political mileage in Indian public opinion. But in
actuality, a lot of grandstanding is going on. Since the pipeline project
involves Iran and Pakistan, Muslim opinion is exercised. Therefore, no matter
the actual dynamics of the project (which is at a snail's pace), the government
needs to be vocal. In any case, the project will take several years to
materialize, and by that time the regional situation (Iran-US standoff and
Iran-Israel hostilities) can be expected to have dramatically changed.
The US estimates that actualizing the India-US nuclear deal itself will take
care of a host of problem areas, such as India-Iranian relations. Equally,
Israel has shown equanimity by not publicly objecting to Delhi's dealings with
Stephen Cohen, South Asia expert at the Brookings Institution in the US,
pointed out at a US Congressional hearing recently, "Japan, Turkey, Italy,
Germany and South Korea are among Iran's largest trade partners in 2007.
France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan and Turkey - again US allies - were
among the largest investors in Iran in 2006. India lags considerably behind all
of these countries in terms of its economic relationship with Iran."
Cohen concluded, "We [US] should not demand Indian support for all our Iranian
policies any more than we should allow India to dictate our policy towards
Pakistan." He may have overstated India's case, but at the same congressional
hearing, former assistant secretary of state for South Asia, ambassador
Teresita C Schaffer, also made a forceful case that "experience of the last 10
years would suggest that the 'partnership list' will grow with time" and the
nuclear deal would be the "most powerful tool" in this process.
Political uncertainties lie ahead
Against this backdrop, Manmohan decided that his minority government would be
better off without the support of the Indian communist parties who robustly
oppose the nuclear deal and India's strategic ties with the US and Israel. He
worked according to a plan. The Congress drew the communists into a
consultative mechanism over the past year, which ostensibly was aimed at
building a consensus, but incrementally deprived the left of the need to resort
to public criticism.
Once public criticism eased, the establishment began saturating Indian media
and discourses with its point of view. The Indian discourses rapidly became
one-sided. Meanwhile, Congress began wooing an important regional party, the
Samajwadi Party, in lieu of support from the communists, to ensure the
government remains in power.
There is an element of risk in the project. The communists were steady allies
through the past four-and-a-half year period of the minority government,
whereas Samajwadi Party has a shifty record. But it suffices for the Congress
that Samajwadi is open to wheeling and dealing, is averse to mid-term polls,
and is a stakeholder since being a key supporter of the ruling alliance in
Delhi enhances its clout in the northern provinces, which are its power base
and where it has local scores to settle. All the same, there is an inherent
uncertainty in such an opportunistic patchwork.
Besides, when the crunch time comes, it is the government's economic legacy -
and not the nuclear deal - that will be the focal point in the 2009 elections.
Ironically, Manmohan, an economist, stands on shaky ground. But with some luck,
double-digit inflation, which is an incendiary issue, will ease if prices come
down following a good autumn crop, provided, of course, monsoon rains do not
fail, which will largely depend on whether or not the La Nina phenomenon in the
central Pacific Ocean - unusual cooling of surface waters - has exhausted
itself or not. But, more critically, if an El Nino phenomenon is going to
develop in its place that could potentially have an adverse impact on the
monsoons. The World Meteorological Organization counsels, "There is need for
careful monitoring over the coming weeks."
The Manmohan government might seem impervious, but a grassroots Indian
politician would say there are too many "ifs" and "buts" for comfort.
M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service
for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan
(1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).