Countdown to a confidence vote

KOZHIKODE, Kerala, India July 21/08 – The news India is all centered on tomorrow’s confidence vote, on which India’s Congress-led coalition government, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has staked its rule. The confidence vote was necessary, as I said in my previous blog, because of the Indo-US nuclear deal. In between that blog entry and this one, I had a chance to look at a new document prepared by the Left parties, consisting of correspondence between the Left parties and the UPA over the nuclear deal. Now I might be biased but I have to say that the left arguments strike me as much more coherent than the UPA’s, and this seems to emerge very strongly from the correspondence.

But let us review the arguments of the UPA as best we can.

In order to grow, India needs energy. In order to become a world power, India needs help. The Indo-US nuclear deal will provide the energy, but more than that it will provide technology. The deal amounts to a lifting of the embargo against India that has happened since India exploded nuclear devices 10 years ago and will provide access to the latest in nuclear technologies. India will begin a “nuclear renaissance” that will make India a “nuclear superpower”, meeting its energy needs through international agreements for fuel and self-sufficiency in technology, courtesy of the US. Similarly, the economic, political, and military cooperation with the US is aimed at strengthening India’s strategic position as a global power.

The left response is basically as follows.

There is no disputing that India needs energy, and that at present Indians do not use enough energy to lift the majority of the country out of poverty. But the role of nuclear energy in the current mix is 3% and the most optimistic scenario with this deal is that it could reach 6% by 2020. While they make some allusions in this direction, solar and wind investments might make more sense, especially solar, as well as, (unfortunately from the climate perspective, which Indians will suffer from), coal.

Incidentally, the left is not necessarily against civil nuclear power, but it does criticize the technological and economic lock-in that will occur if the Indo-US deal is struck. There are other nuclear technologies India could use that would ultimately rely on local nuclear fuel (thorium) rather than imported uranium. The tens of billions India will spend on imported technologies from Westinghouse, GE, and other American firms are lost opportunities for building domestic energy technology and capacity (of course, I would argue that such opportunities should be pursued in a non-nuclear way, given that nuclear catastrophes in a country like India would be even more catastrophic).

The deal, in any case, does not amount to a lifting of the embargo. The US President has to report to the US Congress each year on whether India is properly handling its nuclear program and whether India’s foreign policy is congruent with that of the US. For example, the US medium-term strategy involves isolating Iran diplomatially, the long-term strategy involves isolating China. “Congruence” means helping the US in these programs. And what does India get from isolating Iran and China? A lost opportunity at peace and integration in its own region, increased dangers from its neighbours, and in the short term, lost energy sources for development (especially in the form of the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline).

India’s compliance will be monitored, and if it fails to comply, the US can break the deal and prevent nuclear material from even getting to India. What if the US fails to comply? Perhaps the consequences will be as bad for the US as its blowing off of the Kyoto protocol? Its blowing off of the International Criminal Court? Its blowing off of the softwood lumber agreement with Canada? (In other words, the US can and break agreements at will, without much consequence, while the US is able to make other countries suffer if they break agreements).

Finally, the strategic power India seeks is illusory. Powers do not build up other powers to rival themselves. They build up dependencies to do their bidding. There is no shortcut for India to becoming a global power by a deal with the US. There is only a way to become a client, purchasing arms and playing a regional role of creating mischief and tension in a world that needs neither. What is to be gained by trying to rival China, except forcing China into an arms race of which India’s development and people will be the first victims (and not the US)? Why should India subvert its (admittedly not always consistent) nonaligned history in order to help the US prevent rivals from emerging? To the degree that India has succeeded since independence, it has been by ignoring the advice of the developed countries on economics, politics, and foreign policy, and it has failed by adopting that advice (on agriculture, mass education, intellectual property, and neoliberalism generally). Why risk those gains now?

In any case, there is not much longer to wait. Asking the reader to keep in mind my spectacularly poor record at prediction, I venture that the government will win the confidence vote and the deal will squeak through, though I hope not. I will try to write about it tomorrow (my internet setup is not as good here).

It is interesting to be watching all this from Kerala, which is a somewhat marginal place (its main tourist attraction is literally called the backwaters), not unlike Canada in that sense. Here, in addition to the nuclear deal, there is the textbook controversy I mentioned earlier (in which a 7th grade social science textbook includes a story about a boy who writes down that he has “no religion” in a checkbox). That controversy has now become a tragedy. Reports say that Muslim Youth League activists beat to death a 40-year old school principal, James Augustine, yesterday. He was trying to go to his school and the Muslim Youth League, as well as the Congress League, were protesting outside. Secular activists vowed not to take the mobilizations meekly, and some of them beat up some Muslim Youth activists yesterday, during a dawn-to-dusk “strike”. Today there’s also a one-day education strike, to protest James Augustine’s murder.

Again a superficial impression, since I can’t read Malayalam (I speak it rather poorly) and haven’t really connected with any political people here yet, is that this is a communal agitation for political gain, intended to undermine the government. The government had agreed to back off and amend the textbook somewhat, but the religious activists didn’t back off in response. The role of this type of street agitation, including beating people to death during protests, has some relationship to politics and to the state. I don’t think the police allowed the killing to happen, the way they sometimes do during communal agitations especially in other parts of India, but I don’t actually know their capacities or sympathies – if this type of agitation continues much will depend on both. That the suspects were immediately arrested and that this seems to be widely seen as a tragedy both bode well, though the textbook was amended and that bodes badly.

Next time I’ll try to talk about energy, agriculture, and climate change problems here (for example an anomalously bad rainy season endangers Kerala’s water and hydroelectric supplies – 50% of Kerala’s electricity comes from this source), but in the meantime it’s all about the nuclear deal…

Justin Podur

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.