So what was the big deal?
So, how do you feel about the nuclear deal now? You remember the deal of course? It was supposed to be so stunning and far-reaching in its impact that it would transform India. The world would look at us with new respect. Billions of dollars of fresh investment would flow into our country. Our industries would finally have the energy that they so desperately required. And all negotiations between India and the US would now be conducted according to the terms of the post-deal relationship.
Of course, I’m not sure it’s actually worked out that way. Nobody looks at us with greater respect because of the deal. Far from throwing billions of dollars our way, Western investors are actually pulling their money out. It’s too early to measure the impact on energy generation but let’s be honest: nuclear energy only accounts for 3 per cent of our power generation. How much difference could any nuclear deal make to the big picture? And as for our relationship with the US, did any of us even think of the nuclear deal when we watched the meeting between Barack Obama and Manmohan Singh? More to the point, did Barack Obama think of us differently because of the deal?
I ask all these questions even though the answers are self-evident because all too often we in the media have a tendency to shout ourselves hoarse about one crisis and then effortlessly move on to the next, conveniently forgetting what we had said during the first crisis.
Something like that has happened with the nuclear deal. I reckon there are about 20 people outside of government who really understand the deal and its intricacies. For the rest of us, our support was based on gut feeling. We did not believe that Manmohan Singh would sell India out and so we backed him. We felt that Prakash Karat was trapped in a Cold War mindset so we opposed him. Few of us paid much attention to the specifics of the deal.
Perhaps because we understood so little of what was actually being agreed to, champions of the deal got away with saying what they wanted. I’ve lost count of the number of editorials that warned us that this was India’s last chance to fit into the new global order. I never understood how billions of dollars were going to flow into India once the deal was signed. And when I asked many of those who had written this with such authority, I discovered that they didn’t really know either. Till the end, we were told that this was such a good deal that the US would withdraw if we wavered. Well, we kept wavering and the US seemed happy to wait for us to make up our minds each time.
It is not my case that the deal was a bad one or even that India did not need it. When it comes to protecting our country’s interests, I am quite happy to respect Manmohan Singh’s judgement. He is brighter than the rest of us and has more integrity than most Indian politicians put together.
My point is less black and white. Even if the deal was a good one, was it worth the mayhem it created within our political system? And were we bamboozled into signing a deal that was much less important than its cheerleaders claimed it was?
With the benefit of hindsight, I’m coming around to the view that we were conned. It may be a good deal, but the price we paid was much too high.
Consider the mess we are now in. Judging by the polls, this is going to be our closest election ever. The Left, which could have been counted on to support a Congress-UPA government has now declared that it will only back a Third Front Prime Minister. This means that we are confronted with the real possibility of Mayawati or Mulayam Singh or Jayalalithaa at Race Course Road in a couple of months.
The only reason the Left abandoned the UPA was the nuclear deal. Till then, the alliance may not have passed the kind of reformist, pro-market measures that Manmohan Singh wanted, but there was no doubt that it provided a stable government and had a reasonable chance of regaining power after the elections.
The exit of the Left led to several unfortunate consequences. Manmohan Singh is a brilliant man but he is not a mass leader. The respect in which he is held comes from our conviction that he is a deeply moral person who will never compromise with corruption or sleaze.
The events that followed the exit of the Left severely dented that conviction.
Is there anybody who believes that the Congress did not manufacture and procure a majority in the confidence motion? Could there have been a more shameful moment in parliamentary history than the time that notes were flung around on the floor of the House? Can the Prime Minister really dissociate himself from all this?
When the Left threatened to depart, Manmohan Singh reached out to Amar Singh. At the time, his spin doctors hailed this as a brilliant strategic move. But with each passing day, it seems less and less brilliant.
Now, Amar Singh goes on television to declare that he personally saved the government and Manmohan Singh’s prime ministership. It was the Congress that did not honour the terms of the deal and settle Mulayam Singh Yadav’s CBI cases.
If this is true, then you begin to wonder about the morality of the nuclear deal itself. Was it worth buying MPs and doing dodgy deals only to save the Prime Minister’s face? What happened to the integrity that we respected so much?
Nor has the deal served any political purpose. Even Amar Singh and Mulayam Singh have deserted the Congress, screaming betrayal and refusing to agree to seat sharing. The BJP, which we were told, would be punished by voters for its hypocrisy in opposing the deal, has hardly suffered.
The nuclear deal is also a political non-issue. According to an NDTV poll, the two greatest achievements of the Manmohan Singh government are the farmers’ loan write-off and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. Few respondents named the nuclear deal. Is it any surprise that no Congress candidate is asking for votes on the basis of the nuclear deal?
The Prime Minister has often suggested that history not journalism must have the final say on whether the deal was worth the chaos it engendered and the immorality it spawned. Of course he is right and we should wait for history’s verdict.
But the verdict of common sense is quite clear. Manmohan Singh staked too much for too little.