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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

From The Times of India, September 16, 2008

16 Sep 2008, 0000 hrs IST, RAJIV DESAI

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As Delhi recovers from the shock of the terrorist bombings, it is apparent that India is under sustained attack. Weak governance, an intelligence failure and police bungling are the reasons the chatterati ascribes to the incident. It is almost as though they are inured to the random loss of life on the capital's mean streets.

The real failure lies in the divisiveness of the political class. From Bangalore, where the BJP is holding a convention, saffron grandees have pitched in with vicious criticism of the government. Nobody has come to grips with the real issue: a political consensus is vital in a modern nation state.

Certain issues of national interest are beyond partisan politics. The civilian nuclear deal with the United States was one such issue. The political bickering over it showed very clearly the lack of maturity in the political class. On September 6, 2008, the Vienna-based Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a consortium of 45 countries that seeks to control international trade in nuclear materials, technology and equipment, issued a "clean waiver" that exempted India from its own denial regime. The effort was spearheaded by the US government and supported by most of the original seven members of the NSG.

Where the global community rose to admirable heights to transcend its domestic political concerns, in India, the saffron and red opponents of the deal plumbed new depths of chicanery. Instead of closing ranks with the government, they dug in their heels and refused to acknowledge the importance of the NSG waiver and the potential it offers to transform India's standing in the world.

The intemperate response from the two opposition parties betrayed a poor understanding of the nature of democracy. The government won a confidence vote in Parliament, signalling it had majority political support for the deal. It went on to get its safeguards plan approved by the International Atomic Energy Agency and then finally won the confidence of the NSG with its assertion that it was against proliferation and a nuclear arms race.

Having tried every trick in the book to stall the deal, the opposition simply failed. They could have acknowledged that government won both domestic and international political support and as opponents do in a democracy, lined up behind the government to present a united face to the world.

Never mind what happens in specific sectors, the Indo-US deal is a strategic move that will help transform the Indian economy. We will engage as a mature power with the big boys and therefore learn that we must take ourselves seriously. We cannot say one thing and do something else. In that sense, the Indo-US agreement takes Manmohan Singh's economic reforms of 1991 to a new level. We will have to play by the rules and not hide behind political barriers as we have done at the WTO.

As it turns out, the business sector is already at it. For all the companies they have bought overseas and for all the foreign investment they have attracted, business leaders have understood the seriousness of contracts, intellectual property rights and the need for professional management. The Indo-US deal simply ensures that government will follow with accountability and transparency.

Concomitant with the rise in India's global status, its political class needs to come together on key issues such as the NSG waiver and terrorism. The opposition parties could play a constructive role in achieving this. Clearly, nobody expects the Left to sign up. The formation is an ideological dinosaur that opposes the deal because of its irrational anti-American mindset. As is now clear, it is China's cat's paw.

But the BJP could definitely play a bridging role. Its over-the-top response to the nuclear deal was based on the fear that the government has given up our right to test nuclear weapons. But the NSG waiver was to allow India the opportunity to do civilian nuclear commerce with the world. There is nothing in the agreement that talks about weapons testing. The waiver in Vienna is an overt acknowledgement by the world that India is a responsible nuclear power.

Remember, the NSG was formed in the aftermath of the Indian nuclear test in 1974 and was strengthened after the 1998 tests. Against this backdrop, the NSG waiver takes on historic and dramatic dimensions. It is a magnanimous gesture by the very countries that led the hostile reaction to India's tests.

It is sad that the BJP, whose support is crucial to achieve a national consensus on vital issues, continues to behave like a street-fighting unit. It must play the role of an opposition. But there is something called a loyal opposition, loyal to the Indian state. The BJP has every right to challenge the government. But it could temper the role it plays to be mindful of national interest.

The BJP's response to the nuclear deal and now to the terror attacks in Delhi underlines the inability of our political class to present a united national front on vital issues. In stark contrast stands the situation in the US in which presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain put aside their differences on September 11 to make a joint appearance at the World Trade Center in New York.