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Home > News > Columnists > Saisuresh Sivaswamy

I wish a 60-year-old nation will act its age

August 31, 2007

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Democracy, one learns in school, is government of the people, by the people, for the people. Which gave birth to the old chestnut regarding Indian democracy: off the people, buy the people, far from the people.

Even as one grimaces at that definition, it remains for me a matter of constant amazement at how is it that wags get it perfectly right every time.

Two utterances by politicians -- neither of them lightweight -- have brought about these musings on my part. One was what Mohammad Salim, the Marxist MP, told Karan Thapar on a late-night television chat, comparing diplomats and politicians following a row over Ambassador Ronen Sen's interview to

Diplomats are trained to be sophisticated, whereas the politician is from the aam-aadmi, he is not polished, he is not trained to be sophisticated: this was the general drift of what Salim told Thapar.

And this week, the Maharashtra chief minister, defending elected representatives' right to meet convicts, said if politicians were barred from doing so it would become difficult to run Parliament or the state assembly as criminals abounded in them.

We have always known the above fact about our elected representatives, and we are told to believe that this is the standard of men who we expect to defend our national interest, especially over the nuclear deal with the United States which has been made out to be an act of treason against the common citizen.

It remains a matter of great puzzlement for me why our esteemed Marxists, who have been trying very hard to portray themselves as defending the national interest in this deal and in the perceived closeness with the United States, kept their counsel and silence not too long ago when India was firmly in the USSR camp, the sole fig leaf being that we had not joined the Warsaw Pact. For all other practical purposes, we had sold our soul to Moscow [Images], even going so far as to abstain in the UN vote in 1980 over Russia's [Images] invasion of Afghanistan.

All that, of course, was in the national interest.

But today, when we extend a friendly hand to Washington, DC, suddenly we become vulnerable to American pressure on our policy.

Sometimes I wish a 60-year-old nation will act its age, and not behave like or have worries like a banana republic that will come unhinged at the mere draught from American skirts. To rewind to 1991, at a time when the same Dr Manmohan Singh [Images], in his avatar as the nation's finance minister, opened up the economy -- under World Bank (read American) pressure -- it was like all hell had broken loose. Fears of Indian industry being swamped by MNCs was whipped up, then, as today, it was made out that India had sold its soul for a few dollars. Sixteen years later, with the advantage of hindsight, how many of those fears were justified?

Alas, those who refuse to learn from history, especially those who are involved in making history, are forever condemned to repeating it. Thus for the last fortnight we saw a hostage-like situation in New Delhi; much as the Marxists may downplay their intention to pull down the government, or having issued an ultimatum, the political drama was nothing less than what we see on Al Qaeda [Images] video tapes showing bound hostages. Denounce America or else... Surprising how even the messages match.

Truth be told, I expected Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to call the Left's bluff, for beyond everything else it was his personal prestige at stake here. Sacrifice his government for what he believed in, and what he strove to achieve.

Setting up a committee to look into the whole issue is a dilatory tactic. Dr Singh has merely put off the inevitable by agreeing to the panel. What will it do? The committee will 'look into certain aspects of the bilateral agreement; the implications of Hyde Act on the 123 Agreement and self-reliance in the nuclear sector; and the implications of the nuclear agreement on foreign policy and security cooperation -- all issues that the Left has raised'.

Given that Parliament is virtually divided down the middle over the issue, the composition of the committee --- the Left has six members, the UPA five and UPA allies three -- is most crucial, for it is a safe bet that its members will come with preconceived notions. Given that there are others as well who have raised objections to the issue, shouldn't the government have included the main Opposition party as well in the committee?

Interestingly, there is no time-limit given for the committee to submit its findings. And by saying that operationalising the nuclear deal will take into consideration the committee's findings, and being silent on whether they will be accepted, the government has clearly indicated that this is only a time-buying mechanism.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is caught between a rock and a hard place. The United States has clearly said there is no more negotiation to be done by it, so it's a lonely haul for Dr Singh.

What could be behind the government's calculations to delay the inevitable?

It is clear this Lok Sabha will not see its full term. So it all comes down to choosing the time of election. If the government were to fall now, the new Lok Sabha will have to meet before April, so the election will have to be held in March latest.

Can the nuclear deal become an election issue? Unfortunately not. Much as the political parties tomtom that national interest is at stake, the masses are not moved by it. Nor can relations with America become an election issue that whips everyone into a frenzy.

Neither the government nor the Left, or for that matter the BJP, really have an issue to go back to the people with. It's a fair guess that the new Lok Sabha will resemble the present one, which means it will be a non-starter as well. The Left may probably lose a few seats, but not enough to give a simple majority to either the UPA or the NDA.

But the political situation can be expected to change in the next few months. In December Gujarat will go to the polls, and its outcome will be the trigger, either way, for the status quo to be disrupted.

The BJP has been a shadow of its former self, it doesn't look inspiring, nor does it sound inspiring. Worse, it may have shot itself in the foot with its unbridled, and inexplicable, anti-Americanism over the nuclear deal, and L K Advani's damage control may not be enough.

In Gujarat, its poster boy Narendra Modi is fighting with his back to the wall. More than the Congress, it is his own partymen he needs to fear. If he falls in the election, as the Congress expects him to, it will give hope to the latter of expanding its footprint. Is that the reason behind the go-slow on the nuclear deal?

But election predictions are dicey at the best of times, just ask A B Vajpayee if you don't believe that. Equally, Modi could trump all odds and win his state -- in which case he becomes a bigger menace for the Congress than the BJP. Calling an election in the flush of his victory will cost the Congress dearly.

Unless, Prime Minister Singh has a Plan B in place in case of a Modi victory. But that can only mean sacrificing the nuclear deal to pull his government through for another 18 months.

Share your thoughts with me at And if you'd like to read more of me, visit my blog:

Saisuresh Sivaswamy