Mani-Talk: Calm Down. We're Welcoming a Lame-Duck President

(Mani Shankar Aiyar is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha.)

For all the pomp and hype accompanying Obama's Republic Day visit to India, the fact is we are welcoming a lame-duck President who has lost control over his Congress (Parliament) because he has lost the confidence of his people. He is eking out the last days of his Presidency without being in a position to do anything very much more than he already has to carve his niche in history.

What a contrast to the Obama we welcomed in 2010. Then was the spirit of "Yes, We Can". He had caught the imagination of the world by becoming the first person of colour to attain the most powerful position in the world. He had opened his innings with a bang by a speech in Prague that signaled a definitive move towards the end of nuclear weapons. For this mere declaration of intent, he was rewarded with a Nobel Prize for Peace. It was within months of the grand reception in Oslo to receive the award that he landed in India. The longest paragraph in the joint statement he signed with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh related to the dismantling of nuclear weapons. He has since done nothing of substance to fulfill the high hopes he had raised of being a 21st century Mahatma. It underlies the importance of giving the Nobel Prize for solid achievement, not high rhetoric. It also shows that Joint Statements, even at the highest levels, are worth little more than the paper they are written on, if not followed up by either or both sides, as has been the case with the disarmament provisions of the November 2009 statement.

The Indo-US dialogue then was dominated by the Indo-US nuclear agreement (and the Defence Cooperation Framework that paved the way to the nuclear agreement). The nuclear agreement was the first and most dramatic confirmation of the "strategic partnership"between the two countries that India and the US had been working for ever since Vajpayee declared that the two countries were "natural allies".

How a non-aligned country can be the natural ally of anyone was not explained, either by Vajpayee or his successors, for they were in fact riding two horses at the same time: the Non-Aligned horse, which was India's great gift to the post-colonial world, and the avid desire to be recognized as a special friend and partner by the world's solitary Superpower. It was always an alliance of unequals, but it ended nuclear apartheid and fostered dreams of India becoming a Nuclear Energy Superpower when  (and if) the thorium route to nuclear energy would become technically and economically feasible.

For the Americans, it was the opening up of one of the world's biggest markets for nuclear power plants for their moribund nuclear energy industry that had been starved of orders ever since the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in the US. So pleased was Dr. Manmohan Singh with this win-win achievement that he proclaimed on TV to President Bush (then on the verge of being kicked into the dustbin of history) that, "The people of India love you." I - as one of the people of India - demurred, but the euphoria was catching.

Two developments pricked the euphoria. One, Fukushima. That put real energy into the public demonstrations at Kudankulam, Jaitpur, West Bengal and elsewhere against the siting of nuclear power plants in or near people's habitations. Everyone loves nuclear power - but no one wants to live in the vicinity of a nuclear power plant. Indeed, the only way to persuade the aam admi to accept that nuclear power plants are harmless neighbourhood creatures would be to site the next plant on Race Course Road, adjacent to the Prime Minister's residence.

But it is the second hurdle that really brought Indio-US nuclear power-sharing to an embarrassing standstill. Reminded of the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal on thenight of 2/3 December 1984 - for which the American multinational got away virtually scot-free - the Indian Parliament insisted on a Nuclear Liability Act that made the supplier substantially responsible for any disaster that might overtake their nuclear plants. The Americans baulked at having to rise to their responsibilities for causing untold harm to others. They wanted the billions upon billions of dollars they would get from flogging to us the nuclear power plants they found too dangerous to put up in their own country, but insisted on limiting to peanuts their liability as suppliers.

The result is that while Russia and France have agreed, within the existing legislative framework, to supply additional nuclear power plants, the US stands cut out of the deal. They did not sign the nuclear deal to enrich France or Putin's Russia - but that's the way it is going. So, once the kissing stops, Obama is going to apply all the pressure he can on getting Modi to dilute the Indian position.

If he succeeds (as he might) and US suppliers get themselves lucrative contracts, they will discover that villages selected as sites will rise in revolt as has happened at every such site since the dangers of nuclear accidents became widespread public knowledge. Thus, either way, whether Modi relents or not, the Indo-US nuclear agreement is going to remain a dead letter. Moreover, Parliament's objections to giving Americans Warren Anderson-like concessions to wreak more Bhopals are going to be virtually impossible to over-rule, even by a didactic autocrat like Modi.

When a freshly-minted President Obama visited India in November 2010, there was an 'Audacity of Hope' in the air. He now comes tired and dispirited. He has disappointed hordes of those who hailed him when he won his first Presidential bid in 2008. He personified then the dream of a final end to both racism and the Quest for Dominance. His track record as a senator for having voted against Bush's disastrous intervention in Iraq was hailed as the foresight of a truly enlightened leader who knew how to give the lead. Today, with Iraq still an albatross around the American neck, the IS running riot in the Levant, relations with Russia at their lowest ebb, the impasse over Iran unresolved, and the scuttle underway in Afghanistan, Obama has become, alas, a discredited President.

No wonder he has grabbed an opportunity such as the one offered to him by Modi to recover some of his erstwhile standing in the world. At least someone wants him to review a ceremonial parade.

What he now hopes to achieve is to carve a deeper niche for himself in history by snaring India into a security ring around China in the current build-up to Cold War II. He might yet succeed, for Modi has little time for the rationale of Non-Alignment and is paranoid about security. He does not realize that it was Non-Alignment that kept us out of the conflict zone in Cold War I. If he allows himself to be seduced by Obama's siren song, as he seems inclined to do, we might find ourselves being dragged along, as a very junior partner, into precisely the web of military alliances among the Big and the Small that insidiously brought on World War I with no one desiring it.

I cross my fingers with the prayer that the worst may not happen between a loser US President and a naive (but authoritarian) Indian PM.

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