Lessons in Coalition Politics: The Indian Left and the Indo-US Nuclear Deal


In the general election of 2004, the Indian electorate denied the intransigent right wing power over the state. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance won 181 seats, with the BJP losing 44 of its seats to come away with 138 by itself. The Congress Party gained thirty-two seats for a total of 145. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance had 218 seats, the largest bloc, but still short of a majority in the 545 seat lower house of the parliament. To gain a comfortable majority, the UPA turned to the independent, often regional, parties as well as to the Left Front. Forged over the past three decades, the Left Front includes four parties, two of them Communist Parties (the CPIM and the CPI) and the other two left-of-center political formations (the Forward Bloc and the Revolutionary Socialist Party). With 61 seats in the parliament, the Left was able to give the UPA its majority.

Pressure mounted on the Left to join the Alliance, and so, to join the government. Experience in earlier united front governments (in the late 1960s) has taught the Left not to join a government in the position of junior partner. In 1996, when things seemed to hang in the balance, the various regional parties came to the Left and asked the Front to sign on, even to have a Communist be the Prime Minister. The Left at that time refused. In this case, there was no expectation that the Left would join the government, not only because of its long-standing policy to avoid becoming a political subordinate, but also because the Congress is itself a very unstable party that is now quite firmly controlled by a section who are pro-capitalist and flog the line that India must now take its place alongside the US as a world power. The Congress leadership’s dismissal of the danger of imperialism and its cavalier disregard for the effect on India of the policies of neoliberalism made any formal alliance with the Left impossible.

The Common Minimum Program

Instead, the Left Front proposed a novel formulation. The UPA and the Left drafted a Common Minimum Program (CMP), an agreement about what is possible and what might be possible. To monitor the CMP, the two sides created a Coordination Committee. With these elements in place, the 61 Left Members of Parliament voted to support the UPA government “from the outside.” The CPM and the Left Front wanted to be “the watchdogs of the new government, not their lapdogs” (in the colorful phrase of CPM Politburo member Sitaram Yechury).

The Common Minimum Program was not a revolutionary, post-capitalist document. Instead, it laid out a broadly social democratic agenda. On the economic front, the CMP called for an increase in government expenditures to provide relief to the population, notably the rural poor. Women’s empowerment was to be fully supported in every domain. The CMP pledged to ensure an economic growth rate of 7-8 percent “in a manner that generates employment so that each family is assured of a safe and viable livelihood.” For the pro-capitalists in the Congress Party, this emphasis on growth was crucial, as was the aim “to unleash the creative energies of our entrepreneurs, businessmen, scientists, engineers and all other professionals and productive forces of society.” Labor was to be given welfare, while professionals were to be given energy. But the Left went ahead with the CMP, largely because of the national feeling that religious fundamentalism (manifested by the BJP) must be rejected. It would be wrong to characterize entry in the UPA government as revolutionary, or to say that the Congress had a “left-wing mandate” (as David Harvey puts it in his Brief History of Neoliberalism). Kicking and screaming, the Congress accepted many of the suggestions of the Left in order to make the fractured popular mandate into a stable government. Knowing that it did not have the power to determine the course of the Indian political agenda, the Left also compromised with the UPA and accepted a social democratic agenda. This was not a forced compromise, but a voluntary compromise (a distinction Lenin develops in his 1917 essay, “On Compromise”).

The gains and losses of this experiment will take time to fathom. The Left succeeded in blocking the normal inclinations of the leaders of the Congress Party, many of whom ran key ministries in the UPA. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, has, for his generation, the typical background of a member of the Third World intelligentsia. Born in 1932, Singh earned his advanced degrees at Cambridge and Oxford, from where he went to work at UNCTAD (the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) a key institution of the Third World project. Singh was at UNCTAD from 1966 to 1969, when this UN institution was in its heyday under the leadership of its founding Secretary General, Raul Prebisch. From UNCTAD, Singh went on to occupy a series of important posts in the Indian government, including Governor of the Reserve Bank of India and Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission. Here Singh managed the economy along the lines of the import substitution industrialization model [reducing foreign dependency through local production – Ed.], when economic dirigisme was the vogue in India. In the midst of all this, Singh was also Secretary General of the South Commission, whose Report from 1990, stands as a direct rebuke to everything that actually followed in India in terms of economic policy – most of it under his watch.

From 1991, as Finance Minister Singh led the Indian state into the embrace of the IMF, inaugurating the “liberalization” era. Alongside Singh, stood P. Chidambaram (now Finance Minister, but then Minister of State for Commerce), Montek Singh Ahluwalia (now Deputy Chair of the Planning Commission, then Finance Secretary to Manmohan Singh) and C. Rangarajan (now Chair of the Prime Minister’s Economic Council, then Governor of the Reserve Bank of India). These were the brains of the liberalization scheme, and they are now in charge of the “finance side” of the Congress Party.

Their influence cannot be underestimated, and they came to power in 2004 with (to their mind) the very opposite of a left-wing mandate. They came to continue the “liberalization reforms” but minus the crony capitalism of the BJP. This is not to say that the UPA government could flout “national” interests. These continued to be in play, for instance, at the WTO Geneva meeting in July 2008, when the Indian team helped scuttle the Doha round. Here the Minister of Commerce and Industry, Kamal Nath, rejected the policies of the “survival of the fittest” for the “revival of the weakest,” displaying a populist streak that also had a class angle, since this was a policy was adopted at the behest of various agrarian capitalists within India, as well as the farmers’ lobbies.

Over the past four years, the Left has functioned as a brake to the general thrust of this Liberalization Junta (the German Marxist Walter Benjamin wrote that revolution is the emergency brake against the runaway train of capitalism). The Left blocked the privatization of profitable public sector companies, prevented the wholesale privatization of sectors such as telecommunications, civilian aviation, and the retail trade, and succeeded in holding back the entry of speculative finance capital into the management of the people’s wealth (that is, pension schemes and the social insurance sector). This was valuable work. But everything was not defensive. The Left parties joined with various people’s organizations to push for, and win, a National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, a Tribal Forests Rights Act, a Right to Information Act, a Domestic Violence Act, an act abolishing child labor, and much else (among which was the repeal of POTA, a draconian anti-terrorist law). The Finance Ministry complained that the Common Minimum Program was unaffordable, and the chief finance minister lobbied to scuttle the main planks of the social democratic agenda. But he could not carry the day. As the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the largest party in the Left Front, concluded at its 19th Congress (in 2008), the Left blocked retrograde polices and pushed pro-people measures, and, in sum, “succeeded in slowing the pace at which the government wishes to push through neoliberal reforms.”

Subordinate Ally

In terms of foreign policy, matters were also not fully clear in the Common Minimum Program. However, one sentence is unequivocal, and the Left took it as the bedrock of the understanding: “The UPA government will pursue an independent foreign policy keeping in mind its past traditions. This policy will seek to promote multipolarity in world relations and oppose all attempts at unilateralism.” Later, the CMP acknowledges that the Congress-led UPA will pursue “closer engagement and relations with the USA,” but it says that this can only happen in the context of maintaining “the independence of India’s foreign policy position on all regional and global issues.” An early draft of the CMP called for “strategic relations with the United States,” but at the urging of the Left this was dropped.

In 2003, the Indian Parliament defeated an attempt to send Indian troops to Iraq, and early into the new government's tenure, the External Affairs Minister, Natwar Singh (himself a holdout for the Bandung Road) [A reference to the historic 1955 Asian-African solidarity conference in Indonesia - Ed.] gave an assurance that India would not commit troops to Iraq. At the same time, as a means of building confidence along the India-Pakistan border, the UPA government pursued a “peace pipeline,” a natural gas conduit that would run from Iran, through Pakistan, to India. The existence of such an important pipeline (which would bring Iranian gas to Indian markets and earn Pakistan hundreds of millions of dollars in transit fees) might knit the livelihoods of these two neighbors and consolidate various peace moves that had begun between Islamabad and New Delhi. The two initiatives did not sit well with Washington. The Bush administration wanted help in Iraq, and it wanted to intensify its policy of isolating Iran. But there was no joy in Washington, as neither Pakistan nor India budged on the pipeline or wanted its forces in Iraq, or Afghanistan.

Unable to move Pakistan, where US leverage is considerable, the Bush team wooed India, where core elements of the finance section of the government were more receptive to its charms. From the very start of the UPA government, it had become clear that the Liberalization Junta wanted to cement a close link with the US and utilize a bilateral agreement with the US as the platform to bring India onto the “world stage” (i. e. a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, some kind of membership in the G-8, etc. When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came to India in 2005, she got what the US wanted from India, and gave little. India got no commitment on its seat on the UN Security Council, and the US would not go back on its commitment to sell F-16 jets to Pakistan. Rice also lobbied against the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline, pushed the Bush administration line on Iran, and promised to help meet India’s energy needs, offering nuclear technology if India abandoned the pipeline project. This was the first indication that a nuclear deal would be the quid pro quo for scuttling the “peace pipeline,” along with and providing the US with political cover in Third World forums in for its line against Iran.

At the Hyderabad House press conference, Foreign Minister Natwar Singh was deeply uncomfortable when the discussion came to Iran, voicing hope that Iran would fulfill its obligations to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and declaring “we have good relations with Iran,” as Secretary Rice offered her famous upside-down-smile frown. Thus the Liberalization Junta’s eagerness for entente with the US came at a cost. The first down-payment was the Indian vote against Iran in the IAEA (2005). Natwar Singh’s rear-guard action – insisting that the Iran issue be dealt with as a procedural matter by the IAEA – was rebuked, and he was forced to resign by the year’s end. The nuclear deal, however, was always subordinate to the greater goal: to “strategically ally” India with the US.

Past and Present

From 1947 to 1992, the Indo-US relationship was ambivalent. India was a leader of the Third World project, one of the key players in the Non-Aligned Movement, and a respected critic of US imperial policies from Korea to Cuba, from the Congo to Vietnam. India played a very important role in various United Nations forums, pushing for peaceful solutions to conflict as much as possible, as well as for the creation of multipolarity in the world. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru ceaselessly pleaded against military pacts and blocs, and called on the countries of the world to formulate independent foreign policies based on trust and cooperation. The test cases of this method in the United Nations were during the Korean and Congo conflicts. In both situations India tried to forge an independent path that was quickly squashed by the Atlantic powers. The memory of the Korean and Congo crises and of the aggression against Vietnam and Cuba prevented any entente with the Atlantic powers, or indeed with the Soviet bloc. In addition, the experience of colonial dominion by England over the subcontinent was school enough to show that the “free-born Englishman” could be an imperialist. Much the same was said of the US government, whose adventures in Latin America and in Southeast Asia proved that 1776 did not mean liberty for all people.

With the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Third World project, the leadership of the Congress Party, reflecting the new aggressiveness of the national bourgeoisie, made a willful analytical shift. The Congress leaders argued that now that the bipolar Cold War had ended, the world had become multipolar. This was a curious elision of the increased aggressiveness of the US which now, as the leader of the G-8, was freely bombing small countries like Panama and pushing for a new global trade regime through the Uruguay Round of GATT. Influential members of the Congress Party now turned their back on the goal of producing multipolarity. They declared that multipolarity was already the reality, ignoring the obvious unipolar ambitions of US imperialism. If Nehru once warned his Party not to join a pact where India would be subordinate and dependent, the Congress’ new leader, P. V. Narasimha Rao, argued that India would form a pact as an equal, not as a junior partner. The US, Rao’s team argued, saw India as a partner in the “community of democracies”, which is why the Rao government eagerly recognized Israel (for the first time) and signed a military collaboration agreement with the US. The top brass of the US and Indian military created executive committees and proceeded to conduct naval, air force and special forces joint exercises. In 1995, Indian officers attended the US military academies to train with their peers through the Indo-US Military Cooperation Agreement. Due to US congressional prejudices, this cooperation was briefly halted after India tested nuclear weapons in 1998, but they were quickly restarted and intensified after 9/11. This was the period when the hard right BJP was in power in India, and it cultivated close military ties between the two countries, as well as with Israel.

The national bourgeoisie, who control India’s big business enterprises and other sections of the Indian economy, saw great opportunities in the new dispensation/this new arrangement. The Indian big business brigade did not come from the military side of the new Indo-US entente. In 1991, Rao and Manmohan Singh began the process of transforming the role of the state in the Indian economy. BUT held back by pressure from the Left, the populist parties and the people’s movements, the Rao team could not move at a full tilt. “Reforms” came in fits and starts. The government weakened the rules for foreign direct investment (FDI), encouraging capital from the Atlantic states to drift toward India. In May 1994, US Commerce Secretary Ron Brown arrived in India with a delegation of CEOs from Fortune 500 firms. They pledged $7 billion for various deals (largely in telecommunications and energy). The leader of the energy team was Enron, whose Maharashtra power plant deal later ended in disgrace over charges of bribery and cost-gouging. Since then, foreign direct investment has increased dramatically (from $162 million in 1990 to an estimated $40 billion in 2008).

Large firms in India welcomed this investment, because it allowed them to leverage their already strong position further and extend themselves out of the country. Since 2000, for instance, India’s largest business house, the Tata Group, has procured nineteen concerns outside India (such as Britain’s Jaguar and Land Rover, South Africa’s Neotel, South Korea’s Daewoo Commercial and, most significantly, the UK-based steel giant, Corus). This assertiveness by the national bourgeoisie in India manifested itself in a show of confidence vis-à-vis the United States, seeing it as an economic and political partner. The national bourgeoisie, including the owners of the country’s large software firms and the media, derided all talk of imperialism and welcomed the new age. During Rice’s trip to India in 2005, she flattered this sector by saying, “It is the policy of the United States to help India become a major world power in the twenty-first century.”

To become a “world power,” in this rendition, is to break down the dirigiste state and construct a neoliberal one in its place. The intellectual framework for this exercise comes from the International Monetary Fund and was partially implemented by the Rao-Singh team in the early 1990s. The remainder of the new intellectual framework, which had been blocked by the progressive opposition comes from the US-India CEO Forum, a group set up at the Bush-Singh meeting in 2005. The Forum includes members from India (ten major CEOs, including Ratan Tata of the Tata Group, Nandan Nilekani of Infosys, Mukesh Ambani of Reliance, and Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw of Biocon) and from the US (ten major CEOs, including Gregory Page of Cargill, Vikram Pandit of Citigroup, Joseph Saunders of Visa, and William Harrison of JP Morgan Chase). Of the thirty recommendations in their “US-India Strategic Economic Partnership” document (2006), 21 are directed toward India, which is charged with the removal of all tariff and non-tariff barriers for imported products. For all the blather about the “mutual benefits of globalization,” the proposals basically asked for an end to regulation in India, mainly to serve the interest of US corporations and sections of the Indian national bourgeoisie.

Much the same is contained in the Agricultural Knowledge Initiative (AKI), also launched in 2005 at the Bush-Singh meeting. Guided by executives from Monsanto, WalMart, and India’s Venkateshwara Hatcheries, the AKI pushes for a revision of India’s patent laws and vitiates protections for small farmers. Monsanto’s interest in pushing its various agricultural products and WalMart’s interest in buying agricultural produce for its retail operations will be well-rewarded by the AKI; rewards will also go to big Indian agribusiness (Dabur and Hindustan Lever).

It should be kept in mind that the vast Indian corporate media not only has broad links to the specific firms that would benefit from these economic and military ties, it also has a shared interest in the financial sector and in expanding beyond India’s borders. For instance, The Times of India group, the largest media house in India, is in a joint-venture with both Reuters and the Hindustan Times which, in turn, is in a joint venture with The Wall Street Journal to produce The Mint, a business paper. The web is very dense. In this media environment, any criticism of the entente between the US and India is met with derision. All English-language papers (with the exception of The Hindu) reported on the deal with zeal. On March 2, 2006, The Times of India headline bragged, “It’s a Deal, a Very Big Deal.”

The current UPA government inherited this dynamic. On the military front, it even extended it. Between 2004 and the present, military exercises between the US and India have been conducted regularly (the most recent, the Malabar naval exercises, were held in October 2008). In 2005, as a consequence of these exercises and the relationship that had been built between the military leadership of the two states (as well as the close political ties between the Congress Party and the Bush administration), the two countries signed a ten-year Defense Framework Agreement. The Agreement has four main points: it ignores the role of the United Nations in conflict resolution; it draws India into the middle of the conversation about missile defense; it makes India a bilateral partner in the defense of the sea lanes around China (thereby going against the idea of an Asian pact of the seas); and it encourages India to buy its military hardware from the US. India, it should be noted, is one of the largest importers of weapons in the world.

Time to Split

If there ever was a principled moment for the Left to have withdrawn support to the Congress-led UPA, this was it. While the Left opposed the pact consistently, it did not want to bring down the government after only one year. There was much on the agenda, the hard right had not yet been marginalized sufficiently, and it appeared that through careful maneuvering the Coordination Committee might have been able to block the continuation of this entente.

It was not to be. Over the past three years, the UPA government has quite brazenly reached out to the Bush administration on the latter’s terms, all in defiance of the Left. both the military relationship and the economic ties have been consolidated. On the political front, India voted with the US against Iran in the IAEA. The Indo-US nuclear deal, which was first introduced in 2005 and finally approved this year, combines all the economic, military and political elements of the relationship. On the political front, it is a way to break India’s ties to Iran (first by sidelining the Peace Pipeline and then by requiring India, through by means of the Hyde Act to report regularly to the US Congress on its commercial dealings with Iran). It also succeeds in damaging the framework of international law by creating a major exception to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Given that India does not produce nuclear technology, the deal also provides an incentive to US-based nuclear companies, who are eager to dominate the Asian market for nuclear reactors (Japan and China have become big buyers, while the US has itself not commissioned a reactor in decades). The Left conducted a principled and informed dialogue with the UPA through a series of parliamentary notes and meetings that ran from August 2007 to June 2008. The Left’s opposition is not only based on the violations of Indian state sovereignty in this treaty. Its main objection to the deal is that it turns India into a fiefdom of the US.

On July 9, 2008, the Left parties withdrew their support for the UPA government. mounting pressure from the opposition, on the one side the Left, on the other the hard right, and in the middle the various regional formations, led the UPA to seek a “trust vote.” On July 21-22, Parliament held a debate on the nuclear deal, and just before the final vote, members of the BJP ran into the well of the house with bundles of cash. They claimed that the UPA allies had tried to bribe them to vote for the government, or else abstain (an investigation is underway). Bribery aside, others had agreed to vote with the government in exchange for prized ministries such as the Coal Ministry, which functions as a giant ATM machine (the minister gets to funnel contracts here and there and personally reaps the long-term “rewards” of the market). But rather than halt the process, the Speaker went ahead with the vote – and the government sailed through.

Jawaharlal Nehru University professor Prabhat Patnaik correctly called the parliamentary vote a coup d’etat: “The fact that parliament was subdued not with tanks but with cash-for-votes,” he wrote, “does not make it any less a coup d’etat; nor does the fact that it was carried out not by a bunch of generals but by a bunch of bureaucrats or ex-bureaucrats (which includes the prime minister), and by persons whose life in politics, such as it is, has never included any contact with ordinary people.” This means the Liberalization Junta and its adherents.

In the wreckage of parliament, the UPA government’s Liberalization Junta began to crow, in the words of Finance Minister Chidambaram the day after the vote of confidence, that without the Left the government “will take its economic reforms forward.” Meanwhile, as soon as the vote went through, the White House hastened to congratulate Singh, and to pledge to do all it can in the IAEA and the Nuclear Suppliers Group. While getting the endorsement for the safeguards agreement from the IAEA Board of Governor’s was easy, the NSG has been less pliable. The revised text prepared by the US for a waiver for India from the NSG is likely to impose explicit conditions on India in accordance with the Hyde Act, a US law that lays out the parameters for the deal in terms of trade with Iran, etc., which will be difficult for the Indian government to sell domestically.

A few days after the vote of confidence, one of the most crucial last-minute allies, the Socialist Party (Samajwadi Party), called for parliament to pass a law creating a fire-wall to protect Indian polices from the wiles of the US Congress; but it was too little too late. All this vindicates the strong position taken by the Left on the nuclear deal, particularly in making the point that the treaty is not what it seems, that is, it is not about energy alone, but is really about yoking India to the foreign policy objectives of Washington.

The Third Front

The Left, meanwhile, has been busy crafting a “third front,” apart from both the Congress-led UPA and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. From 1947 to the late 1970s, the Congress Party dominated Indian politics. A crack in its hegemony in the 1970s inaugurated the era of coalition politics. Unwilling to align permanently with either the Congress or the far right, the Left has tried, over the years, to fashion a “third front,” not only in the electoral arena, but just as importantly by extending the limits of political struggle and debate. The early experiments in 1989 and 1996 were mainly alliances of convenience, the first to prevent the Congress from taking office (so that the National Front received external support from both the Right and the Left), the second to prevent the Right from taking office (so that the Congress appeared to support the internally-fractious National Front/Left Front combine, whose main bone of contention was that the Common Minimum Program was weak, and its own economic prescriptions were not being followed). In many ways, as far as the Left is concerned, the effort was not to create the perfect electoral combination, but to find a way to work with the various regional and social democratic parties in joint struggles to forge a united platform of principles. History does not move at justice’s pace.

It is remains clear that large sections of the population have faith in the various regional, social democratic and even bourgeois-landlord parties. For whatever complex of reasons, these parties continue to out-poll the Left in elections, except in three states (West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura). It would be suicidal for the Left to avoid these parties and to take a sectarian position in regions where the Left organizations are weak. Therefore, it remains important to work with parties and other organizations in struggles of common interest, to create new opportunities and new dynamics. The objective basis for a third front exists: in the 2004 election, the combined percentage of the votes won by the Congress and the BJP was 48.69. Thus, the regional and social democratic parties would now have a large mandate if they could find a common agenda, and disabuse each other of the view that either the Congress or the BJP will operate in the people’s interest.

That the Left supported the Congress-led alliance on the national stage is significant. The experience allowed the Left to showcase an alternative set of national strategies (for secularism, for social welfare, for the strengthening of the regulatory state, for women’s rights and social dignity in general), and to demonstrate the limitations of the bourgeois-landlord and regional parties. The Left has also been able to show what the two main bourgeois-landlord formations (the Congress and the BJP) have in common, and how these commonalities (particularly in terms of economic policy) are detrimental to the mass of the people. The bourgeois-landlord parties tried their best to isolate the Left when it withdrew support for the UPA, but this did not occur. Through some deft maneuvering, the Left Front reached out to the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which began as a party of Dalits (oppressed castes) and now has pretensions to being a national party. The BSP has a history of alliances with both the Congress and the BJP; but rather than be used by these parties, it has cannily used them to expand its base in North India, and supplant them as one of the main parties in this most significant region (the “Hindi Belt,” where the Left has been unable to break through). It remains to be seen how effective this emergent front will be, and whether the BSP’s ability to leapfrog its allies will mean the Left will be the springboard, or whether both will gain in the creation of a new political dynamic in the country.

Further Reading:

Prakash Karat, Subordinate Ally: The Nuclear Deal and India-US Strategic Relations, New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2007.

Prabir Purkayashta, Ninan Kosky and M. K. Bhadrakumar, Uncle Sam’s Nuclear Cabin, New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2008.

--Vijay Prashad is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History, Professor and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT. His most recent book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (New York: The New Press, 2007).