Prime minister Manmohan Singh canvassed furiously for almost a year for another state visit and a meeting with the US president. It is revealing that the Barack Obama administration initially showed little interest, not convinced that it needed to expend political capital hosting a head of an Indian government on its way out. But Singh’s insistence on a valedictory trip was persuasive because of the gifts he promised Washington.
Singh’s first trip as PM to Washington in July 2005 rode on the George W Bush regime’s geostrategic assessment of India’s importance in the unfolding strategic scene in Asia and America’s geopolitical desire to cultivate India as part of a hedging strategy against China. This was a situation tailor-made for New Delhi to extract an equitable deal in terms of easing US-led restrictions on commerce in high-technology and nuclear goods. Instead, it was Washington, exploiting the pronounced Indian desire for a rapprochement at any cost with the US, which imposed conditions on a strategically dim-witted Manmohan Singh dispensation resulting in extraordinary concessions as part of the nuclear deal. The bulk of the dual-use natural uranium-fuelled civilian Indian reactors were thus pushed into the International Atomic Energy Agency nuclear safeguards net, and continuing with the test moratorium has ensured the flawed fusion weapon design cannot be rectified. India’s claim of high-yield thermonuclear weapons status in the event is a hoax. But it achieved for the US, temporarily at least, its long-standing non-proliferation goal of curbing India’s nuclear capability. However, the US hasn’t delivered on the quo for the Indian quid: India does not enjoy the “rights and privileges” of a “nuclear weapon state” promised in the July 8, 2005, Bush-Manmohan Singh Joint Statement, and has not gained entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, but New Delhi hasn’t complained.
Faced, moreover, with high deficit and unemployment at home, Washington has turned the Indo-US “strategic partnership” into an essentially transactional relationship with the nuclear deal being used to bully and badger New Delhi into buying high-value American goods. Worse, Obama has encouraged punitive legislative initiatives at home against outsourcing by American companies to India — even coining the pejorative “Bangalored” for it — and to limit H-1B visas to Indian software engineers, which will hurt the Indian information technology sector — one of the few still bright spots in the country’s otherwise bleak exports picture. Even the terrorism-related intelligence sharing has been turned into a mostly one-way street, with India benefitting little from it.
Any other prime minister faced with such evidence of bad faith would have been wary of dealing with Washington.
But not our Manmohan Singh! He seems happy to be in a play scripted by Obama. Among the gifts he will carry to the US are (1) a “commercial contract” to buy Toshiba-Westinghouse AP 1000 enriched uranium-fuelled reactors, with the Indian monies reviving a comatose US nuclear industry even as the indigenous advanced pressurised heavy water reactor programme is starved of funds, (2) an undertaking, contrary to a cabinet decision, to replace cheap refrigerants used by Indian industry and military with expensive eco-friendly refrigerants that while ensuring windfall profits for a few US companies holding the patents will undercut the consensus agreement reached at the climate summits that Western countries will subsidise green technology in developing states, and (3) contracts for another $5 billion worth of military hardware (15 Chinook heavy lift helicopters, six additional C-130J medium-lift transport planes, 22 Apache Longbow attack helicopters, and 145 M-777 light howitzers) on top of defence deals of over $8 billion already in the bag.
It isn’t clear just how any ruse to obtain American reactors, in whatever manner Section 17 of the Indian Nuclear Civil Liability Act 2010 is interpreted, can empower the Nuclear Power Corporation to limit the liability of the supplier in case of nuclear accidents owing to faulty technology, which the Indian law expressly bars. Surely, an executive order can’t overturn Indian law or legitimate, via the backdoor, adherence to the Convention on Supplemental Compensation limiting liability to $300 million, as demanded by Washington. Any such deal, therefore, is headed for the Indian courts where it will be voided. But Manmohan Singh cares less — he won’t be there to face the consequences of the mess he has created.
As regards the newfangled refrigerants, what’s galling is the PM took this decision and signed the G-20 summit communiqué containing the stratagem to undermine the Copenhagen Summit agreement despite MEA’s warning that, besides hurting the Indian military forces, such a move would lessen pressures on the US to reduce carbon emissions. Indeed, it mirrors the manner in which Singh signed the July 5, 2005, Joint Statement with Bush that was opposed by Dr Anil Kakodkar, then chairman, atomic energy commission. For Singh, his trips to the US seem to be occasions to sell India short.
The Prime Minister’s solicitousness towards America may have many reasons, but two spring to mind. Firstly, as he himself revealed in his statement on the coal scam in the Rajya Sabha, the recent G-20 summit in St Petersburg and the like is where he is accorded respect as an economist and leader which he doesn’t get at home. The US has endowed his participation in such prestigious forums, moreover, with value less because of Manmohan Singh’s eloquence or in expectation of any nuggets of economic wisdom he might let drop — after all president Bush only half-jokingly confessed he couldn’t understand a word the Indian PM said to him in all their meetings! — but because Singh has served the US interests well.
This brings us to the second, more salient reason: Because no Indian government since 1947 has bothered comprehensively to articulate and grade India’s national interests, Singh has treated it as a floating value, and felt free to adopt Washington’s metrics to define India’s interests on critical issues. This policy stance, accompanied by American flattery and high-gloss diplomatic frippery Washington excels in designed to turn any Third World leader’s head, is something Singh apparently finds irresistible.
Bharat Karnad is professor at Centre for Policy Research and blogs at www.bharat karnad.com