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India's Communists and the Nuclear Deal

Posted by: Manjeet Krpalani on November 16, 2007

The US-India civilian nuclear deal seems to be on again, thanks to a temporary reprieve from India’s Communist Party’s usual obstreperous stalling. The Communists are preoccupied with the events in Bengal, the state they rule with a majority, and with impunity. But their dual policy of obstructing American investments for India while encouraging them in Bengal, has caught them out at home.

About time.

In Nandigram, a fertile part of Bengal where land was acquired for an industrial SEZ, villagers have been agitating for a fairer deal. This week, Communist party thugs roared into Nandigram on motorcycles, burnt down the homes of local leaders and villagers, and blocked off the area, Taliban-style. Thousands of villagers fled their homes, some were killed. The police were told not to interfere, and they didn’t. It broke the myth of the Communists being ‘pro-people’ while all others in India are not.

India went ballistic, the opposition attacked the Communists for their double standards and thuggish behaviour. And in New Delhi, some one has quietly played a strategic game of chess, keeping their white knight one step ahead of the Communists on the chessboard. On November 16, the ruling coalition is to decide on whether India will go ahead with its negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency, on the agreement for safeguards, a key step towards operationalising the nuclear deal.

With the Communists on the backfoot, this small step towards progress is likely to happen, and most Indians are hoping that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will press his advantage. With India’s economy growing at 9% annually, energy is a crucial need. So is India’s new strategic relationship with the United States, which the Communists oppose, on principle, preferring a closer relationship with China – a country which humiliated India in a border war in 1962, and for which Indians have deep distrust.

With or without the civilian nuclear deal, however, the US-India relationship is developing in a robust manner. “Everything else is going quite smoothly, nothing else is impacted by this,” said Shyam Saran, recently India’s top foreign service officer and chief negotiator on the US India nuclear deal.

On the military side, there have been 11 joint exercises (naval, airforce, guerilla) since 2003, and joint patrols of the Indian Ocean. There have also been defence purchases – most prominently a $12 billion order from India from the US for multi-role combat aircraft. India wants to modernize its military, and diversify from the Russian dominance of equipment. Intelligence-sharing on counter-terrorism is established procedure now.

Energy cooperation is on a roll too, with the US department of energy meeting regularly with their Indian counterparts on energy-efficient technologies and an exchange of scientists.

Ditto with the agriculture initiative, a $100 million commitment shared between India and the US on the establishment of, among other things, an Agriculture Knowledge Institute, with joint research aimed at ushering in India’s “Second Green Revolution.”

Trade is the most ambitious of all the US-India cooperation agreements: the aim is to double US-India trade in three years, starting March 2006, to $52 billion by December 2008. This is trade in goods alone, and does not include services, which is likely to expand greatly, given the Indian tech sector’s huge investment in US companies.

The only laggard is education, where yes, it’s the Communists again protesting the entry of US educational institutions in India on grounds of ideology. That there are 76,000 Indian students studying in US universities, and that India has a severe shortage of educational institutions, is clearly not a consideration.

Despite the sturm und drang over the civilian nuclear deal, there have been two major benefits. First, the opposition to the nuclear deal and the recent events at Nandigram have shown clearly that the Communists are out of sync with India’s national mood. Indians want the US strategic relationship, and the villagers of Nandigram want their voices heard, not repressed as they have been under decades of Communist rule. Second, as Teresita Schaeffer of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said, the long negotiations over the deal are helping the US and India learn about each others’ democracies and systems.

In the long term, both are desirable outcomes.

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