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Parliament must assert its role
August 16, 2006
The Indian Parliament is likely to see heated debates on the Indo-US nuclear deal and disruptions of the functioning of both Houses in connection with this issue.
In the US Congress, the US-India Nuclear Co-operation Promotion Act of 2006 (HR 5682 RH) was passed by the House of Representatives on July 26, 2006 with substantial bipartisan support.
In doing this, the House has taken full cognizance of the cautions and protests they received from the US non-proliferation lobby, and have appropriately modified the earlier version of this bill (HR 4974) to assuage their apprehensions. Thus, the overwhelming support this bill received recently in the full House is only an indication that the US requirements have been fully met, while India should concurrently understand it as a strong blow dealt to our national interests.
The US House's approval has been misconstrued by much of the Indian media as a great success gained by our negotiators who have been engaging the US Administration for almost a year now.
Unfortunately, this has conveyed to the Indian public the false and comfortable feeling that the legislation as it stands today is benign to India, and all the negative clauses which the national critics of the deal have worried about have been eliminated. The truth is far from it!
It is only few of the additional amendments brought forth in the final few days which have been defeated -- ALL the original restrictions and demands placed on India through HR 5682 still remain intact. Thus, the linkage to Iran in defining Indian good behaviour, the denial of the multi-path nuclear fuel supply guarantee which the prime minister had promised to Parliament, the total disregard for reciprocity of actions, the mandatory need for India to co-operate and collaborate with the US on the FMCT [Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty] on their terms, fully participating in the Proliferation Security Initiative, the Australia Group, and the Wassenaar Arrangement, etc are still very much part of the passed legislation.
Much more stringent restrictions and demands will be forthcoming when the Senate bill is presented later and passed by the full Senate. So, there is a need to be on guard against the misinformation campaign which is going on, especially in these difficult days when the government is facing attacks in Parliament on all fronts.
Our immediate focus, however, needs to be on how best to protect India's national interests in the near and long term. Should we entrust this task, in the current context of the Indo-US nuclear deal, solely to the UPA government as we have done so far, or should the primacy of Parliament be enforced to ensure that this government stays within certain mutually agreed boundaries of action?
Ironically, the best answer to this question can be gleaned from the views of US Congress, which also found itself in a similar dilemma over the same deal.
The bill HR 5682 RH was submitted to the House of Representatives along with a detailed report which explains the intention behind each of its clauses. Let me reproduce a few verbatim quotations from this report, which clearly make the case why the US Congress was compelled to proactively participate in shaping the current deal.
The report states, 'Given the unique and controversial nature of the proposed civil nuclear co-operation agreement and the fact that Congress was not consulted regarding the negotiations between the Administration and the Indian government relating to the original announcement of their intention to negotiate such an agreement, Congressional scrutiny and approval was deemed essential to protect US interests'.
The manner in which the Indian Parliament was treated by the UPA government is also much the same. The PM sent his advance points-men to the US to lay the foundation for this deal, to discuss the strategic path for converting it into a reality, and perhaps to reach certain unwritten understandings with the US administration, including the potential commercial benefits that the US could accrue through this deal in the areas of selling nuclear power plants to India in the future, arms exports, sales of clean-coal technologies and associated equipment, etc.
The government used only a few hand-picked senior officials from then on in handling this deal, persons in whom the PM has trust and who are also well-known sympathisers of the US points of view. Parliament, members of the Cabinet, and almost all the rest of the bureaucracy and the general public had no inkling of what is being negotiated, ostensibly for the purpose of "enhancing energy security" and for the larger good of the country by leading it into the US camp.
Therefore, just as the US Congress did in their interest, it is time that the Indian Parliament also wakes up to the need for this deal to be subjected to parliamentary scrutiny and approval in the Indian national interest.
The US House report further states: 'Direct Congressional involvement, especially the requirement for its approval, is also necessary to ensure that the pledges and assurances made by the Administration and the Indian government are actually met and not rendered irrelevant through lack of action or discontinuation of interest. Without enforcement provisions, such statements are obviously little more than promises that may be modified at will, or even abandoned altogether, should circumstances change'.
The PM has also made specific promises regarding the details of the nuclear deal to Indian Parliament on a few different occasions over the last year. However, the way matters have turned out, it appears that the negotiators appointed by the PM have totally failed to impress upon the US Administration these promises that he had made.
On the whole, the government has not stood up firmly against the American onslaught on the PM's promises, fearing that the deal may not go through. Inherent in this behaviour is the government's strong conviction that India cannot survive and grow if this nuclear deal with the US collapses, which sadly is a colossal fallacy.
In any case, the way events are progressing, it shows a scant regard on the part of this government for the shared responsibility which Parliament also has in our democratic polity.
I shall close with a third quotation from the US House report which brings out the importance of legislative involvement in such affairs of State. It reads: 'Constitution nevertheless vests Congress with considerable powers and responsibilities in the areas of foreign policy and national security, which its members are obligated to carry out. Fidelity to that trust means that Congress cannot delegate those responsibilities to the executive branch or allow itself to be made irrelevant to government policy in any area.'
Our Parliament must also be aware that they hold enormous ultimate powers and solemn responsibilities under the Indian Constitution. They must feel that, at this juncture, they have an unavoidable collective responsibility to steer this government away from the path it is deliberately following, contrary to the promises made in the immediate past. Whether this is achieved through a 'Sense of Parliament' resolution or a prime ministerial statement to Parliament is a matter to be collectively decided.
All of us do understand that the objective is not to pull down the UPA government, but to make this government understand beyond any shadow of doubt that they have to openly articulate the Indian position to the US administration and to our own nation. While doing this, the government must keep in mind the consensus opinion of Parliament at all times. We are ready to accept once again a statement from the PM , the fifth of such disappointing exercises on this deal, if that is what the government wants to save its face in the light of the two US Congressional bills, instead of a joint Parliamentary resolution.
However, this time we hope the PM will not only make renewed promises and clarify Indian policy to Parliament, but also thereby send a pointed message to the US Administration and their Congress regarding specific objections we already see in the two US bills which have come out.
There is no wisdom in waiting for the US "to complete their legislative process", because it is high time the US Administration is openly warned that Parliament and the people of India strongly oppose the specific inserts in these bills which go beyond the July 18, 2005 agreement between the two governments.
Dr A Gopalakrishnan is a former chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, Government of India. He can be contacted at email@example.com