Have you heard of Kevin Rudd? He is the man who might give a wake-up call to the prime minister.
For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the name, Rudd is the Leader of the Opposition in Australia; he will be prime minister should the Labor Party win the Australian federal election later this year -- and Rudd is currently beating the sitting Prime Minister John Howard in the opinion polls.
On August 17, the Australian television channel ABC asked Rudd for his reaction to the news that the Howard ministry was considering selling uranium to India. Vowing to 'tear up' any such deal if he came to power, Rudd said he could not possibly approve of selling uranium to any nation that had not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
If an Australian politician can talk so casually of trying to force India to sign the Non Proliferation Treaty when we are still being wooed, what demands for dowry shall be made after the marriage is consummated? (I have evidently caught the 'marriage metaphor virus' from Comrades Karat and Bardhan!)
The prime minister has made visionary statements about generating up to 35,000 megawatts of electricity through nuclear power. (The Tarapur plant could produce, at best, 300 megawatts.) But this would depend on an assured supply of uranium.
Australia holds the largest reserves of uranium on this planet, roughly 40 per cent of the whole. When it comes to actual production (rather than reserves), the palm goes to Canada -- which also has about 15 per cent of global reserves.
Can you do without Australian and Canadian uranium? That would be like trying to manage without Gulf oil, theoretically possible but incredibly dear.
Dr Manmohan Singh has gone on record that the current occupant of the White House is the 'friendliest American president' as far as India is concerned. He is, arguably, correct, but what would happen should President Bush be succeeded by someone less 'friendly' just as Prime Minister Howard might be succeeded by Kevin Rudd? What kind of pressure would be brought to bear on an India that depends on imported uranium for 35,000 megawatts of power rather than just a few hundred megawatts?
I am not saying that the nuclear deal with the United States should be rejected. (Quite the contrary!) But I do say that we should enter into it with both eyes open. Whatever our illusions, such a pact will be perceived by the rest of the world as India joining a larger strategic partnership with the Western powers.
Did you think it was just a coincidence that the announcement of the agreement with the United States was followed with a visit by the Japanese prime minister? Or that Prime Minister Abe -- in a speech to both Houses of Parliament no less -- appealed for a 'broader alliance' by democracies in Asia, pointedly excluding China? Or that plans are under way for a joint naval exercise by India, the United States, Japan, and Australia? Or that the Chinese foreign ministry has already sent a note to Australia, bitterly denouncing the 'four-way strategic encirclement?'
On balance, I am all in favour of a broader partnership with the democracies of the world. I like the thought of ever-deepening links, whether economic, educational, or otherwise. And I would like to believe that there are other Indians who think the same.
Prakash Karat and his comrades are, obviously, not numbered among them! And this is the core of the Left's vehement opposition to the nuclear deal. They are not objecting to specific sections of the proposed pact, but to the strategic vision that underpins the whole deal.
You might not share their apprehensions but you have to respect the fact that their objections are born of adherence to a certain set of principles. (By the way, I deplore the vile language I see on the Internet message boards. Surely it is possible to debate without using the jargon of the gutter to describe the Communists!)
Herein lies the single greatest blunder committed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Knowing that he lacked a clear majority in Parliament, knowing that the Left has an allergy to the United States, knowing that even his own party has reservations, he went ahead and inked a deal without taking Parliament into confidence.
The outcome was predictable. Fourteen months ago, in July 2006, I wrote in these columns that 'the best way to ensure that an accord succeeds is to build a broad consensus within the Indian body politic before sitting to negotiate with a foreigner.' It was open, at every step of the way, for the prime minister to reach out to the BJP -- which, unlike the Left Front, has no qualms about a strategic alliance with the United States.
What, in fact, did Dr Manmohan Singh do? He asked the President to dissolve the Bihar Vidhan Sabha to deny Nitish Kumar the chance to form a ministry. He stood by as the Congress played games with governors in Goa and Jharkhand. He accused unnamed BJP leaders of conducting a havan for his own demise. In a word, he left no stone unturned to convince the Left of his anti-BJP credentials.
It is a simple equation, Mr Prime Minister. There can be no economic progress without electricity, and nuclear power is probably the quickest, cheapest, and least polluting method to generate that desperately needed power. There can be no nuclear power without uranium. There will be precious little uranium unless the United States persuades Australia or Canada. And there will be no agreement with the Americans unless you get the BJP on your side in the name of the greater national interest.
Comrade Karat -- who understands the dynamics as well as anyone else -- might permit poor Manmohan Singh to stay in Race Course Road for several months more. But at what cost?
There will certainly be no nuclear deal in the near future; the Marxists' opposition has already ensured that the Indian case cannot be made to the International Atomic Energy Agency. (The deadline for placing it on the agenda passed on August 18 when the UPA was pacifying the Left.) And without the International Atomic Energy Agency's nod, India cannot approach the Nuclear Suppliers Group for formal permission to import uranium.
Frankly, I cannot see how Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi could have done a worse job of political management. They antagonised the BJP, throwing away the chance of pushing the nuclear deal through Parliament for the sake of rickety ministries in Panaji and Ranchi. Now, with the markets gyrating wildly and food prices hitting the roof, they have given the Left Front the luxury of choosing the time of the next general election.
It was open to the Congress leaders to approach the BJP leadership. They did not. If the BJP now refuses to back them they have no right to complain about a 'Rudd' shock!