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Discourses on the Nuclear Deal: Persistence of Independence

In the course of public contestation and debate, political parties in India have attempted to garner acceptance for their respective positions on the Indo-US nuclear deal by drawing on key historical norms. Notions of freedom, which have historically constituted a primary feature in Indian foreign policy discourse, continue to feature in foreign policy debate and form a focus of consensus and dissent even today in India as it was during the dawn of independence.

NOTESEconomic & Political Weekly January 19, 200873Discourses on the Nuclear Deal: Persistence of Independence Kate Helen SullivanSince the end of the cold war, India’s relations with the world have un-dergone a radical and multidi-mensional transformation. Of the many changes to have informed Indian foreign policy since the 1990s, several commentators have identified a marked shift from idealism to pragmatism, with national self-interest taking precedence over the norms andideals that constituted the ideational heritage of the national movement [Mohan 2003; Ganguly 2005: 141-44; and Kapur 1994:10].Bhupinder Brar has echoed this point of view, identifying a complete disorientation within Indian foreignpolicy,which he believes to be no longer driven by “those reflective and normative ideas which inform a people of their location in the world and their moral destiny” [Brar 2005: 204-05]. With the passage of time and in the face of structural changes in both the domestic and international arenas, the politico-ethical ideals associated with Jawaharlal Nehru and the dawn of independence would appear to have undergone significant erosion. In contrast to this position, however, recent domestic dissent among Indian political elites over the proposed Indo-US nuclear deal reflects the way in which foreign policymakers continue to con-ceptualise and articulate certain tradi-tional norms within the context of foreign affairs. Debates over the nuclear deal in both Parliament and the media have highlighted not simply a lack of ideological consensus over what ought to constitute the mainstay of India’s foreign policy strategy, but the way elites have attempted to justify their divergent positions by framing them within a wider historical discourse. Specifically, both po-litical proponents and opponents of the deal have appropriated notions of freedom within this foreign policy discourse in anattempt to navigate, subsume or protest against the Indo-US civil nuclear initiative. Discourses of FreedomDiscourses of freedom constituted an inte-gral dimension of Indian foreign policy after independence, as was the case for most post-colonial societies for whom in-dependence and state sovereignty appea-red as the crucial markers of their emer-gence as free nations. In his first broadcast to the nation as head of the interim government on September 7, 1946, Nehru stressed the imperative of acting as “a free nation with our own policy and not merely as a satellite of another nation”, thereby delineating the maintenance of freedom in policy formation as a key objective of India’s foreign policy [Nehru, cited in Appadorai 1981:15]. This commitment was, however, not simply a continuation of the freedom-maximising imperative of the national movement, but equally a re-action to the bipolar constellation of a world gripped by the cold war. Nehru’s refusal to play into the hands of either of the two blocs was aimed at ensuring freedom in policymaking in the realm of international relations. An adherence to the policy of non-alignment combined with active participation and leadership in the non-aligned movement (NAM) evolved into a significant guiding principle in Indian foreign policy that characterised the initial years after inde-pendence. In the wake of the end of the cold war, Indian foreign policy faced an array of new challenges, as global transformations redefined the parameters within which it had been conducted for some four dec-ades. Not only did the collapse of the USSR signal an end to what had evolved into nearly 20 years of a de facto Indo-Soviet alliance, but India had to adapt swiftly to a unipolar world in which the US emerged as the dominant power. These changes necessarily entailed the discarding of several core values of the previous system, specifically in the areas of independence in international affairs and non-alignment. The inherent tension between new imperatives and old ideas was identified by foreign secretary J N Dixit as one of several broad challenges faced by India’s foreign policy at the time, with the In the course of public contestation and debate, political parties in India have attempted to garner acceptance for their respective positions on the Indo-US nuclear deal by drawing on key historical norms. Notions of freedom, which have historically constituted a primary feature in Indian foreign policy discourse, continue to feature in foreign policy debate and form a focus ofconsensus and dissent even today in India as it was during the dawn of independence.The author would like to thank Assa Doron, Robin Jeffrey and Auriol Weigold for their help-ful comments on this
NOTESJanuary 19, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly74imperative being “above all, (to) reforge and re-create internal national consensus on India’s foreign policy in all its dimensions and aspects” [Dixit 1996: 51]. Achieving consensus on international issues was also complicated by funda-mental changes in the Indian political system. The end of Congress dominance spelt the emergence of a competitive multiparty system and the pronounced role of coalitional politics – in short, an abrupt change in the domestic parameters within which Indian foreign policy had been conducted for four decades. Yet in-terestingly, while the parameters of for-eign policy decision-making have changed substantively since the end of the cold war, traditional norms are still drawn upon to foster consensus on, or generate resistance to, new foreign policy initia-tives. The recent dissent among political elites over the Indo-US civil nuclear deal provides a clear example of this.BJP’s Opposition Despite the erosion of non-alignment as a guiding principle of Indian external af-fairs, the continuing centrality of notions of freedom is evident across the spectrum of opposition to the nuclear deal. To date, the BJP’s opposition to the civil nuclear initiative has focused on the claim that the terms of the deal endanger India’s nuclear weapons programme and therefore the country’s strategic autonomy. In general terms, theBJP has considered the deal to compromise: national security issues; autonomy of India’s decision-making processes; the autonomy and independence of our nuclear pro-grammes; the inviolability of the principle of a minimum credible deterrent…plus, the future of our scientific and technologi-cal research in the nuclear field [J Singh, February 14, 2006].Specifically, the 123 Agreement, indi-rectly endorsing the Hyde Act of 2006, has formed the basis ofBJP concern, since the provisions of the act, militate against India’s sovereignty – in par-ticular, in regard to the conduct of our foreign policy. When enforced, they will seriously impair our nuclear weapons programme, and thereby jeopardise our strategic objec-tives [Advani, August 30, 2007].The upholding of India’s national security, its strategic sovereignty and the autonomy of its decision-making proc-esses have formed the crux of theBJP stance on the Indo-US nuclear deal, a continuation of previous lines of argumentwhich had, to a significant extent, underpinned the justification for the nuclear tests of 1998 nearly a decade earlier.Opposition from the LeftDistinct from the position of the BJP, the basis of the opposition from the left par-ties, led most conspicuously by the Com-munist Party of India (Marxist), has centred on their assessment of the US-Indo initiative as not simply negotiations over a civil nuclear deal, but over the parameters of a new relationship. In an open letter to members of Parliament in September 2007, the CPI(M) announced, “It is our contention that the nuclear cooperation agreement should not be seen in isolation from the overall context of India-US strategic relations, its impact on our foreign policy and our strategic autonomy” [Central Committee of the CPI(M), September 8, 2007]. The reaction of the left to the initiative has been based on a more general commitment to countering US hegemony in the economic and political spheres, where the imperialist nature ofUS policies forms a primary con-cern. The independence of India’s foreign policy has, for the CPI(M), clearly been subverted toUS objectives, most conspic-uously in the votes against Iran submit-ted byIndia in the InternationalAtomic Energy Agency in September 2005 and February 2006 (ibid). Indeed, this en-croachment ofUS interests into the realm of Indian foreign policy has been por-trayed as a negation of all that has been fought for in the long history of struggles for freedom: In the 60th anniversary of our independ-ence, the 150th anniversary of 1857 and the 250th anniversary of the battle of Plassey which heralded the colonial rule over India, we cannot allow any erosion of our hard won sovereignty and independence. On the contrary, we need to strengthen it [People’s Democracy, August 26, 2007].In sum, it can be observed how both the CPI(M) and the BJP have drawn on notions of sovereignty and independence to generate consensus on their wholly divergent views on the nuclear deal. While theformer has objected to the intensifi-cation of India’s relations with the US and the latter to the specific details of one instance of Indo-US cooperation, the common denominator of the self- determination of policy has underpinned their respective positions, thereby empha-sisingthe central role that notions of freedom still play in the contemporary foreign policy discourse. Striking is the way in which this particular theme with-in the foreign policy discourse is signifi-cantly malleable to be employed as a justificatory rhetorical device across party affiliations and ideologies and covers such diverse foreign policythemes as autonomy of policy, strategic security, and anti-imperialism. Proactive or Reactive?The dual significance of freedom in newly independent India’s external affairs has been captured well by Brar, who acknow-ledges that:The ‘inevitability’ of such a linkage between freedom and foreign policy seemed to follow directly from what the colonial policies sought through their freedom struggles: not just the negative freedom (such as, in the case of India, the withdrawal of British con-trol) but equally the positive freedom – the freedom to realise themselves as peoples’ [Brar 2005: 205-06].Brar’s distinction between positive and negative freedoms, or proactive and reac-tive foreign policymaking, is of no little import to the current nuclear debate since, while opponents to the deal have drawn on notions of freedom to justify their res-pective positions, each has focused exclu-sively on a negative conceptualisation of freedom. Indeed, rather than the positive freedom to form and project a coherent identity, opposition to the nuclear deal has centred largely on freedom from external interference. Non-alignment, at its most successful, was infused with Brar’s notion of positive freedom, serving as it did as a guiding framework in international relations, a proactive force and a way of changing, or at least subverting, the rules of the cold war game. The decision to charter an independent course on the international stage was imbued with the self- confidenceof a newly independent nation caught in the grip of the desire for
NOTESEconomic & Political Weekly January 19, 200875self-determination. Despite occasional lapses and a slow but steady attrition over the years, non-alignmentprovided what many view to be missing in con-temporary Indian foreign policy today, namely, a grand policy strategy from which to derive widespread pan- partisan consensus, instead of a series of reactive policies.Redundance of Non-alignment?Rather than attribute the deterioration of non-alignment to a failing on the part of policymakers, however, or as a symptom of a wider decline of purpose in inter-national affairs, one might question whether the previous guiding framework of Indian foreign policy was not, in fact, temporally bound. Today, for better or for worse, the notion of freedom from exter-nal constraints and a commitment to inde-pendent foreign policy would appear to a significant extent redundant in an increa-singly interdependent world. As Dawa Norbu (2005) has argued, while the nega-tive freedom of national security was a primary goal of foreign policy following independence, since the onset of the era of globalisation, economic development has taken precedence. The collapse of the Soviet system and the failure of the social-ist model of development, combined with the impetus of the dominant paradigm of economic growth, compelled the Indian economy to integrate with the world capitalist system. From the early 1990s onwards, the Indian government shifted course radically, and successive Indian governments across the political spec-trum have sought to liberalise the country’s domestic and international economy as quickly as possible. Given that economic development is indeed moving into a position of ascendancy, and the discourse of negative freedom is rapidly losing its applicability, what alternative discourse might come to dis-place it?A closer analysis of the Congress posi-tion on the deal provides some tentative answers to this question. Evident from prime ministerial statements focusing specifically on the nuclear deal, the Congress-led UPA government has made a case for its nuclear agenda in terms which stress the deal’s potential economic and developmental impact as primary motivating factors. Other reasons for the pursuit of the deal include the shift towards global equality promised should India gain access to the nuclear technology regime, the added value to India’s scien-tific development in the nuclear field, and the increased influential role of India internationally. Couched in terms that have resonated strongly with Nehruvian ideals of social and economic justice, an emphasis on technological advancement and the achievement of development goals, the leadership’s for-eign policy primacy is clearly focused on economic growth, global interdependence and equality between states. The justifica-tion for the deal has thus been based on a wider global strategy:to create a more just international system, a world which will be more moving towards multi-polarity; at the same time, to take advantage of the opportunities that exist in the present system to achieve our goals of accelerating the pace of social and eco-nomic change [M Singh, August 4, 2005].New Sites for FreedomNotions of freedom have certainly not been omitted from the leadership’s for-eign policy rhetoric. In a speech made shortly before the signing of Indo-US CivilNuclear Cooperation Agreement in March 2006, Manmohan Singh highlight-ed the necessity to maximise freedom and retain core values whilst adapting the means required to pursue new national objectives resulting from changes in the international sphere[MSingh, February 15, 2006]. Specifically, the implications ofincreasing global interdependence for the rela-tional parameters between India and other states have shifted the sites where freedom should be exercised. Cooperation basedon an equitable world order is identified asthe new focus of external affairs, while discrimination and other restrictive regimes or structures that directly or indirectly limit India’s economic development are to be avoided or dismantled. Stressing India’s capacity “to participate in the restructuring of a just and dynamic world” at the UnitedNationsGeneral Assembly in 2004, the primeminster emphasised that,Development today is no longer a function of domestic resources and national policies alone. It is a process that is vitally linked to the international economic environ-ment that the developing countries face. The international community must find ways to contract these circles of exclusion. We need to find innovative sources of financ-ing and access to new technologies that are necessary to assist those who are on the margins of globalisation [M Singh, Septem-ber 23, 2004]. The concept of freedom advocated by the current leadership extends beyond the previously held vision of an isolated self-reliant India, to a self-confident India tak-ing an active and proactive role in global affairs and profiting from international cooperation. Advocated is a new brand of freedom, one of equal global partnership and unity, and economic equality between regions and states. Whether this can be as psychologically rewarding as the notions of freedom espoused in the guiding framework of non-alignment, remains to be seen.It has been argued in the preceding dis-cussion that certain normative themes de-riving from the ideational heritage of the freedom movement continue to inform the discourse surrounding foreign policy in India. Indeed, notions of freedom, a sig-nificant legacy from the national movement, have served as a rhetorical fulcrum in the debate over the Indo-US nuclear deal, albeit in a fragmented and inflected form.The conceptual spread of notions of freedom in the foreign policy discourse, where connotations of the term range from the freedom from imperialism to thefreedom of strategic autonomy, world power status and globally equitable economic development, contributes useful insights into the dynamics of foreign policymaking in an era of diminished foreign policy consensus. The appro-priation and selective interpretation of long-standing collective norms to further specific domestic agendas is on the one hand a function of the fragmented na-ture of party system and the increased role of coalition politics, yet it also clearly demonstrates a still fledgling consensus over India’s future role within the altered structure of the international system. As the guiding framework for

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