BY PRAFUL BIDWAI
Manmohan Singh’s tainted victory facilitates India’s alignment with the U.S. and conservative domestic policies, completing the project he launched 17 years ago.
INDIAN supporters of a close strategic alliance with the United States, who also profess or advocate probity and democratic norms in public life, never cease to amaze one. For the past three years, they have clamoured for pushing through the U.S.-India nuclear cooperation deal in the teeth of strong opposition, regardless of the political costs. They constantly exhorted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to develop “the killer instinct” and complete the deal “by calling the Left’s bluff”, or go down fighting: do it, use whatever means it takes.
Yet, the same people now express dismay, shock and horror at the way the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) with its new-found ally, the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), conducted the special Lok Sabha session to debate the vote of confidence in Manmohan Singh. This made a cruel mockery of democracy by turning Parliament into a fish market, bribing Members of Parliament to win votes, and brazenly violating every rule in the book. Worse, they portray Manmohan Singh as some sort of detached observer or helpless spectator who had nothing to do with the tactics used by the S.P. and the Congress to win the motion.
This hypocrisy is astounding. The horse-trading and sordid bargains on which the government’s victory was based were no aberration, nor an unintended result of the UPA-S.P.’s actions. They were part of and integral to a consciously designed strategy.
There is simply no other way the UPA-S.P. combine could have won the confidence motion. They had to engineer defections, cross-voting and abstentions to win it by 275 to 256 votes. Had a total of 28 MPs not defied their respective party whips – a majority of them in order to favour the government – the motion would have been hopelessly lost, by 277 to 261 votes.
Such cross-votes are not trivial. Three Indian parties are particularly adept at engineering defections from their rivals: the S.P., the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party. They have run governments in Uttar Pradesh on that basis for years. All of them played a major role, and the Congress a minor role, in bringing about the cross-voting.
The Congress-UPA leadership could not but have been aware that the S.P. would be indispensable in carrying out the entire operation. Among all the friendly parties available to the UPA, it alone could have delivered the vote Manmohan Singh so desperately craved. He embraced the S.P. as an ally, as his cheerleaders had urged him.
The most stunning allegation to emerge from the scandalous display of wads of notes totalling Rs.1 crore in the Lok Sabha was that it was part of the inducement offered to three BJP MPs for abstaining from voting on the motion. It remains to be investigated whether the allegation is valid, and whether this was a simple sting operation or a more complex and devious entrapment job. But it is undeniable that it resulted in one of the most nauseating political episodes in independent India.
This strategy undermined elementary norms of parliamentary functioning, violated democratic political morality and resulted in the loss of public confidence in the integrity of the political system.
At the origin of this was the political crisis Manmohan Singh deliberately precipitated, which suddenly narrowed the UPA’s and the Congress leadership’s options and forcibly converted the nuclear deal into a virtual plebiscite on his government. He was in a tearing hurry to push the deal before the term of the U.S. Congress ended this year. His motives for doing seem to have been two: first, the “legacy factor”, or leaving behind an irreversible set of changes before his term ends; and second, his eagerness to distance the Congress from the Left in a decisive, strategic manner.
According to sources close to Manmohan Singh, he believes that he may not again become Prime Minister, and wants to leave behind a policy legacy and a transformed relationship between India and the world. He believes the best way of doing this is to complete the nuclear deal quickly and consolidate the strategic relationship with the U.S. This would achieve a result similar to the “irreversible” change that Manmohan Singh executed in India’s economic policy in 1991, or Atal Bihari Vajpayee made in India’s nuclear posture in 1998.
Secondly, Manmohan Singh has long been keen to sever the Congress’ relationship with the Left, and leave his government free to pursue a brazenly neoliberal agenda. He regards the Left as an antediluvian force with outdated ideas such as defence of livelihoods, strengthening of human rights, food security and labour protections.
Although Manmohan Singh mocked L.K. Advani at length in his reply to the Parliament debate, his most vitriolic political comments were directed at the Left. He accused the Left of collaborating with the far right and treating him as a “bonded slave”. This only confirms that he was anxious to be liberated from the constraints imposed on the UPA by the Left through the National Common Minimum Programme and other means.
Precipitating a major crisis, which put the fate of his government in the balance, was Manmohan Singh’s high-risk method of promoting his twin objectives. It has been said that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, to whom Manmohan Singh owes a great deal, love nothing so much as economic and political crises because these offer an opportunity to ram through what would otherwise be unacceptable policy changes and austerity programmes that punish the poor. Manmohan Singh has certainly learnt this tactic well.
The confidence vote win will facilitate major shifts in India’s external stance and many domestic policy changes and measures. The latter include agendas that international capital and Indian business groups have been lobbying for, such as raising foreign investment ceilings in insurance and real estate, expanding voting share of private equity-holders in public banks, dismantling labour protections such as working hours while promoting hire-and-fire policies, liberalising foreign investment in organised retail, and enforcing public-private partnerships in health and education.
This will get a big impetus if the S.P. joins the government. While the proximity of the next general elections may dampen the UPA’s enthusiasm for such measures in a period of growing economic hardship, the S.P. is unlikely to feel constrained in demanding changes that favour certain business groups. Some of them reportedly have plans to invest in building equipment and other infrastructure for nuclear power stations.
If the nuclear deal is completed in record time by rushing it through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), and having it ratified by the U.S. Congress, these groups might make early investments in or secure commitments for new nuclear reactors. Regrettably, despite the absence of a serious analysis of the appropriateness, costs, safety and environmental sustainability of nuclear power, the Parliament debate witnessed very real contention on the issue. Proponents of the deal made all kinds of extravagant claims about the virtues of nuclear power, without substantiating them. And most critics did not take them on.
At any rate, after the confidence vote, India’s external posture will undergo far more important changes. Not only will the last vestiges of nonalignment and advocacy of North-South equality be buried, there will be an overt attempt to realign India’s foreign policy and security orientation to the U.S. India will have been admitted into the global nuclear club on the understanding that it will not question the way it is run by those who control what India used to call the system of “nuclear apartheid” – because India has joined that very system.
This will help consummate what Manmohan Singh set out to do in 1991 – abandon the search for a social, economic and political development model that could be an alternative to the U.S. pattern, and join the Western bandwagon.
In many ways, Manmohan Singh’s attempt to reorient India’s relationship to the world is more radical and self-willed than the neoliberal turn of 1991. Then, the Berlin Wall had collapsed and the Soviet Union was about to disintegrate, India was utterly disoriented and many policymakers saw no alternative to IMF-World Bank policies, which cynically exploited India’s short-term foreign exchange crisis to drive a much larger agenda.
Today, the neoconservatives stand discredited, the U.S. is disliked the world over more than ever for its occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, its disastrous West Asia policy, and its Islamophobic “Global War on Terror”. To want to befriend U.S. at this point in the name of India’s bid for global leadership takes some gumption. But Manmohan Singh is desperate to do this. We must oppose his misconceived plans and fervently hope he fails.