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The Indo US Nuclear Deal, ’Nationalism’ and the left

by Aniket Alam, 5 October 2008

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The real danger of the Indo-US nuclear deal is that it formally recognises India as a legal nuclear weapons state and provides the platform for a closer integration of the Indian state and the economy with the global economy and power structure. This simple truth is evident to almost all
leftists outside India who have pitched their opposition to the deal on issues of non-proliferation and denuclearisation. By opposing this nuclear deal on the grounds of national interest, the Left in India stands in danger of becoming left-nationalist and losing its internationalist and humanist moorings.

Economic and Political Weekly, 27 September 2008

’National Interest’ Not the Issue in Nuclear Deal

The US-India nuclear deal marks an important watershed in the politics
of the country as well as in international relations. Not only are its conse-
quences significant, the very passage of this deal says much about the changing economic and power relations in the world we live in. It provides important windows to understanding these changes and what their possible consequences might be. Now that the heat and dust of the politics of the deal is abating, it may be an opportune moment to look at some of these issues in greater depth.

The passage of the deal, despite the stiff resistance from the Left in India, will have wide-ranging implications for Indian politics well into the future. This is a topic which has been widely commented upon and I would not delve too much into it. It is quite interesting though that the main
opposition to this deal came from within the country and not from the international community. Considering the fact that the deal has provided international legal recognition to India’s nuclear arsenal and allowed it unprecedented exemptions from the regular nuclear trade conditions, the global opposition to the accord was rather perfunctory and surprisingly weak. For three decades India has been excluded from the world of nuclear commerce and much of the domestic political opinion with regard to the Indo-US deal seems to have been shaped by this experience of what is termed “nuclear apartheid”.

Major Changes

Today the global context is widely different from what it was when India’s nuclear programme was launched and grounded.1 Instead of a bipolar world, we are today living in a world seamlessly ruled by international finance capital which is managed by a set of bickering (but never fighting)
imperialist countries. Over the past two decades, the Indian economy has grown significantly in size and scope. Today it is among the leading economies of the world which has, given the extremely unequal division of this growing wealth, led to a significant strengthening of its industrialist-agriculturalist ruling class combine. An industrial ruling class which is expanding rapidly both in terms of capital accumulation as well as in managerial capability cannot be subdued in the manner in which traditional third world ruling classes and their states were. Not only has the Indian bourgeoisie held its own domestically after the Indian economy was opened up to global capital, it is now starting to become a serious exporter of capital in its own right, buying up companies and natural resources at an ever growing rate. The fact that India is as yet a small part of the global capital flows should not blind us to this important trend.

The Indian state on the global stage, as a representative of the interests of the country’s ruling classes, is not a weak developing country any more. India is among the few countries of the world which are now poised to enter the charmed circle of dominant economies, or what we Marxists call, imperialist countries. It is not yet an imperialist country. Whether it finally succeeds or not in transforming itself into a fully paid member of the imperialist club is as yet an unknown event in the future, but the trend is unmistakable and clear. Along with China it is the forerunner for full membership of the G-8, the elite club of imperialist states in the world, which would then become G-10. India remains subordinate to the US and global imperialism but surely not more than the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) like Germany, France and Britain.

Degree of Subordination

Seen in this context, to argue that the India-US nuclear deal will turn India into a subordinate ally of the US is to state the obvious but also miss the point entirely. All countries in the world, with the exceptions of brave Cuba and lucky Venezuela, are subordinate allies of the US today inasmuch as they are part of the global financial system. The struggle today, unfortunately, has been reduced to merely one over degree of subordination. A world order dominated and dictated by imperialism is inherently hierarchical and equality between states remains a mere legal fiction. Given the pre-eminent military reach of the US and the fact that its domestic currency is also the global currency, every country in this world is perforce a subordinate ally of the US, but the story lies in the degree and type of subordination. The Indian ruling establishment is learning to play its role as a major global player with élan.

This brings us to, what appears to be, the main reason for the global complicity in support of the India-US nuclear deal. India remains the only “dominant” economy in the world today which is outside the legal framework of the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This imposes significant obstacles to the fuller integration of India into the global economy and power structures, through denial of technology and legal obstacles to corporate and scientific collaborations between Indian entities and global players. You cannot have a situation where an “emergent superpower” is kept outside the global legal system of sharing power and technology. It is for this reason that India gets preferred treatment of being offered an agreement outside the NPT, which even long-term loyal allies of the US – Israel and Pakistan – have not managed to wrangle.
The only important concession India had to make was with regard to its nuclear weapon programme but even here, the deal merely puts some brakes on the increase in India’s nuclear weaponry while, crucially, providing legal sanctity to them.

Fairy Tales

Fairy tales about how this nuclear deal will solve India’s energy crisis or how it will provide electricity to poor households are merely that! The primary purpose of this nuclear deal is not energy security and cheap electricity. The main purpose of this nuclear deal is to give India a free hand to develop an independent and credible nuclear arsenal which can then be harnessed to the global security apparatus to further enhance the stability of the global economic and power system sometimes referred to as imperialism. The Orwellian use of “civilian” to refer to this nuclear deal should not fool any credible observer of the openly military and strategic basis of the deal. Today India’s nuclear missiles can reach not only the east coast of China but equally importantly, they can hit Diego Garcia, the Persian Gulf, the Suez Canal and the straits of Malacca. India is today well poised to take over the role of chief gendarme of the Indian Ocean for the world community (aka the imperialist club).

It is here that the Left opposition to this deal has got it wrong. By founding their opposition on the specious grounds of India’s “national interest”, the Left has scored an own goal. It was a battle lost even before it was engaged. “National interest” is the political expression of the material interests of that class which dominates and controls the nation. Clearly in
India it is the big capitalist class and their allies. The growth of the Indian economy over the past six decades of independent nationhood, and specially in the past 17 years of neoliberal economic reforms, has been premised on a successful integration with the global economy, led by the US. India’s capitalist class today finds itself on the threshold of a global role and is impatient to become part of the global capitalist class which is busy wooing and welcoming it into its fold. The US-India nuclear deal is merely one step on this path, but a crucial step.

National Interest?

It is not only futile, but unreasonable, for the Left to argue that India’s “national interest” lies in a strategic distance from the US and “multipolar” alliances with France, Russia and China. Indian capital has very little interest in these two post- socialist economies, while the US is crucial for its survival and growth. It is not even possible to argue for a strategic alliance with France, Russia and China in terms of a “peoples’ national interest” as a counter to the capitalist national interest.

The rapacious capitalist path, both domestically and in the international
arena, that these other powers are following, makes it difficult to argue that an alliance with these powers will be any more liberatory, moral or pro-people than the one with the US. The only reason why these other countries are not as dangerous to the world today as the US, is because they do not have the destructive power the latter possesses. Russia in Chechnya has been no different from US in Iraq. China, unfortunately, was national chauvinist even before it had turned capitalist, as the attack on socialist Vietnam or the arming of the apartheid backed UNITA rebels in Angola clearly indicates. Even today China’s use of its massive foreign exchange reserves in Africa is almost a carbon copy of “development aid” of US and Britain in that continent. In relation to India, China has been particularly bel-ligerent and unfriendly whether it was themilitary attack of 1962 or the supply of nuclear weapon technology and missiles to Pakistan.

It is obvious that there is not much to choose between either of these powers as far as a moral position is concerned. It may still have been possible for the Left to build a case of “national interest” in choosing multipolar alliances with France, Russia and China over the US, but for that three things have to be demonstrated. One, that it is possible to enter into such deals with these second level powers without the consent of the US. Two, that the benefits to the Indian economy from an alliance with these other powers, with the exclusion of the US, will be greater. And, three, that such geostrategic alliances of nation states actually benefit the common people as distinct from the ruling classes. In my opinion, none of these criteria were ever fulfilled by those who opposed the nuclear deal on the basis of “national interest”.

Nuclear Uniqueness

But nuclear energy (and more so weapons) is an issue which is so clearly outside the ambit of “national interest”. The consequences of nuclear energy and weapons transcend any border that human beings may draw and involve the entire planet, all its biotic resources and hundreds of future generations. This simple yet stark fact has so often been reiterated by anti-nuclear campaigners all over the world since the first nuclear explosion in Hiroshima that it hardly needs reiteration. What then could have been a better, more internationalist, opposition to the nuclear deal which would have also allied the Indian Left with its global comrades?

Radioactive material used in nuclear reactors have a half-life stretching from tens of thousands to millions of years. There is no technology which can keep radioactive waste produced from nuclear reactors from spilling out into the atmosphere for that long. What this implies is, irrespective of howsoever “safely” nuclear waste is kept, one day in the future our nuclear waste is going to poison and kill humans and other biological entities. This is a certainty. The safest of the safe nuclear power is going to create waste which will one day seep out of its concrete and lead containers and kill our children. For this reason alone nuclear energy in any form, civil or military, is the most immoral technology of our times. It is anti-human and has to be opposed without any qualifications. No national interest, energy security, industrialisation – nothing can justify our poising the future in this manner. Nuclear weapons merely make this danger that much more imminent and extreme.

Moreover, uranium, plutonium and thorium are limited resources just like oil and coal while the claims made by supporters of nuclear energy regarding its reduction of green house gases is also dubious given the curse of radioactive poisoning we are gifting our future generations. Finally, it is crucial for any Left opposition to such a nuclear deal to question the very model of ever-growing energy-resource consumption which capitalism fosters and normalises.

It is instructive that none of these arguments have been foregrounded in the Left opposition to the India-US nuclear deal and find mention, if at all, in passing. It illustrates the manner in which the Left has become a prisoner to the politics of nationhood and its pernicious “ism”.

Real Danger

The real danger of this nuclear deal is that it formally recognises India as a legal nuclear weapons’ state and provides the platform for a closer integration of the Indian nation state and its economy with the global economy and power structure. This simple truth is evident to almost all
leftists outside India who have pitched their opposition to the India-US nuclear deal on the issues of non-proliferation and denuclearisation. By opposing this nuclear deal on the grounds of national interest, the Left in India stands in danger of becoming left-nationalist and losing its internationalist and humanist moorings. It is no mere accident that the scientists opposing the nuclear deal from the national interest standpoint were equally at ease with the fascist-nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh as they were with the communist parties.

It needs some introspection among Leftists as to why India’s missile tests, which are clearly meant for nuclear weapons, do not get criticised. Globally the Left has been in the forefront of opposing the militarisation and nuclearisation of their own governments and states; why has India and its communist party been an exception? Is this also a symptom of the nationalisation of the Left? Why is it that the establishment of an Indian military base at Farkhor in Tajikistan with up to 14 MiG-29s and 500 military personnel has not got any comment from the Left?

In fact, the history of this air base is itself an example of how specious the supposed subordinate ally argument is. Farkhor used to be a Soviet era air base that was subsequently taken over by the Tajik government, which, after NATO’s 2001 foray into central Asia was almost handed over to the US. The Russians intervened, removed the Americans and got the Tajiks to offer this air base to India on the promise that India would base Russian equipment there. For this deal, India gave “aid” of $ 5 million to Tajikistan. Farkhor is two kilometres from the Afghanistan border and a short flying time to Islamabad. It is deeply saddening that there has been not one word on this from the Left in India. Is it again national interest which stops the Left from expressing opposition to the blatant expansion of India’s military might? Where will this defence of national interest end? Or are there no limits to defending national interest? Addressing and answering these and similar questions will define the very nature and trajectory of the Left movement in India. It will also define the very nature of the nation state we are citizens of. Even if we do not speak, history is not going to remain silent.


1 As early as 1946 Nehru was speaking of the possibility that independent India would use “the atomic force” to “defend herself”. The role played
by the United States in the development of India’s nuclear sector, both positive and negative, is often commented upon, but what is largely forgotten is that China’s attack on India over a territorial dispute and her subsequent entry into the nuclear weapon’s club also left a deep impact on the Indian state’s strategic and nuclear thinking.