Two features of the hectic political events of the past two weeks create worries about the nature of the UPA government. The first relates to process, the second to priorities. And both features reinforce the suspicion that this is a government that has lost its way, certainly in relation to its own National Common Minimum Programme, and perhaps even more tellingly, in relation to understanding the needs and aspirations of the people.
Consider first the process, whereby the Indo-US nuclear deal is being sought to be foisted upon the nation. I happen to be among those who feel that this deal is against national interest. This is partly because of the concerns raised by many scientists and others that it will force India into an expensive and risky trajectory for nuclear fuel supply that will at best supply 6-8 per cent of our total energy needs in twenty years' time, while reducing the country's options in terms of developing indigenous programmes. But the greater concern for me is that the need to maintain this economically expensive option without interrupting fuel supplies would also lock the country into a strategic and foreign policy relationship placing it firmly in the lap of US imperialism, with all the attendant adverse consequences.
But while this is my personal opinion, and possibly the opinion of many others, I can understand that it may not be shared by everyone. And therefore I would expect and welcome a wide public debate on this issue, which would allow for all views to be fully expressed and thoroughly understood, since this is such an important issue that affects not only the present but also the future. I would also expect the matter to be debated fully in Parliament and in the state legislatures, with full knowledge of the details and the implications of various other laws (such as the Hyde Act in the US) that could impinge on the implementation of such an agreement. I would further expect that the government would consider such a deal in the light of a well-developed long-term plan for the country's energy security, that would have systematically weighed the costs and benefits of different energy options.
But none of these has happened. Instead, a veil of secrecy has surrounded the negotiations, and the little information that has been available has come mostly from media sources that have behaved like pliant publicists for the government rather than independent observers. Recently, for example, the government went so far as to declare that it could not reveal the contents of its draft proposal to the IAEA to its own people, and it was that organisation itself which had to call the Indian government's bluff, forcing it eventually to admit that there was no such constraint. Even now, conflicting reports from Indian and US sources about the implementation and various implications of the deal continue to create confusion and the suspicion of mendacity.
The only discussion that did occur in Parliament, last year, made it clear that the majority of members were opposed to the deal. The few state legislatures that have discussed the deal have also generally opposed it. The Expert committee of the Planning Commission that has prepared a Report on Integrated Energy Policy also specifies only a small role for nuclear energy even up to 2050 and in this it notes the significance of developing thorium-based options for nuclear reactors, which would be entirely domestic.
There is no evidence of systematic cost-benefit studies that have fully included all the implicit costs (such as dealing with nuclear waste and risks of leakage) and taken note of the implicit subsidies, which would allow for an informed economic assessment of the relative nuclear power compared to other sources. And there has hardly been any public discussion of the many issues associated with nuclear power generation.
Despite meeting any of the conditions that would seem to be the minimum requirements for such an important measure in a democracy, the central government has not just persisted but has actually rushed through with the deal. And in the process, because this necessarily meant forcing the Left Parties that have consistently opposed the deal to stop extending outside support to the UPA, it has brought the government itself into jeopardy. The vote of confidence that the UPA government is facing may go in either direction, but even that is not the point. The point is that this very act has revealed the nature of its priorities.
Firstly, it is now clear that the government is more concerned with pushing through the Indo-US nuclear deal than with dealing with the issues that most directly affect the Indian people today. Inflation is higher than it has been for over a decade, and global pressures for even higher prices continue. Industrial growth has decelerated sharply, and may be further affected as the US recession affects global market conditions, and so employment is likely to suffer further. This is a time when a responsible government would first address these issues.
Yet all the urgency in the government seems to be directed towards the nuclear deal. There is apparently no urgency in ensuring a greater spread of the Public Distribution System to ensure supplies of reasonably priced essential food items to people all over the country. There is no urgency in ensuring that the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme does actually provide the promised 100 days of employment to every rural household instead of only one-third of that on average, or in enforcing its correct implementation in every district. There is no attempt to bring in other measures that would dampen inflation or ensure that small scale producers are not hit by the slowdown.
Secondly, the unfortunate priorities of the UPA government come out starkly when it becomes apparent that, for the sake of this deal, it is prepared to move from the principled and issue-based support provided by the Left parties, to a blatant system of political purchase and horse-trading. The machinations and open or covert offers of different blandishments and incentives that have been part of the build-up to the vote of confidence are no secret. While they obviously show the cynicism and self-serving nature of many of the legislators and political parties engaging in this, they certainly cannot reflect well on the government that has so clearly chosen this route to survival and to pushing through a dubious deal. Such a choice is especially surprising since it has been made by a Prime Minister who has an "honest" image.