Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Let them eat nuclear bijli

The other India: Hungry. Homeless. Pauperised. Marginalised.
Sonia promises nuclear energy for all!
Addressing a large public rally — hordes still turn out to gawk at her, marvelling at her high-pitched English and stilted Hindi, pallu firmly in place a la Mrs Indira Gandhi, amma to millions south of the Vindhyas — in the boondocks of Nellore last week, Congress president Sonia Gandhi made a solemn promise to the unwashed masses of India. The surge in India’s power production on account of nuclear reactors that will mushroom after the signing of the India-US civilian nuclear cooperation agreement, she said, will light up every home in every village. Actually, Ms Gandhi promised more than that: “Our Government has signed an international agreement that will enable more nuclear power plants to generate power. I am sure many of you are asking yourselves why this is so important. It is extremely important because as our economy grows, the demand for power would rise. We need power for our farms, hospitals, schools, factories and every home in every village.”
I am not too sure whether Ms Gandhi is right about the 123 Agreement having been signed, but given the Prime Minister’s propensity to keep secrets from the very people whose destiny he presides over, and whom he tends to mislead ever so often through word and deed, one can never say for sure what exactly is the status of the nuclear deal. That apart, Ms Gandhi’s speech at Nellore provides a clue to the Congress’s main campaign issue in the next general election, which could be held any time between early-winter and early-spring next year, depending on whether the UPA Government survives tomorrow’s confidence vote.
The aam admi, the poor, the struggling, the impoverished masses living on the edge, we can now be sure, will be told that their lives will take a turn for the better with the signing of the nuclear deal which will enable Government to supply nuclear power to one and all. Parched farms will become verdant as pumpsets energised by nuclear power will suck out water from the bowels of the Earth; classrooms in schools without teachers, blackboards and drinking water facilities (children can relieve themselves in the fields, so toilets are unnecessary) will be well lit with nuclear power bringing alive fused bulbs; production at factories will double and treble as machines powered by nuclear energy work faster than workers can cope with and managers can keep track of; and, it shall be Diwali every night in wretched villages where power is now considered a luxury and dwellers of hovels still make do with oil lamps provided they can afford kerosene sold in the black market. India won’t be shining; it will be glowing brighter than a thousand suns.
For a moment, let’s believe that I am not being facetious and that Ms Gandhi’s speech was written by someone higher in the food chain than a ‘promotee’ information officer of the PIB. Can all this be achieved by signing the 123 Agreement? Will there be such a surge in our power generation capacity? The answers to these, and other related questions, lie in basic facts that have been swamped by needless propaganda of the 1960s and 1970s variety. While the truth could have served the larger purpose of justifying the need for India to forge a strategic relationship with the US, bunkum is being resorted to to justify the Prime Minister’s strange obsession with the nuclear deal and his sly efforts to foist an iniquitous agreement on the nation. Bogus claims are being made to fool the people into believing that a bright future awaits them, never mind the subjugation of India’s strategic interests to those of America and the business interests of American firms.
So, here are some basic facts that should help realise the stupendous folly into which we are being led by a Prime Minister desperate to keep his commitment to the Americans before both he and President George Bush demit office. The share of nuclear power from existing reactors in the power produced in our country today stands at 2.8 per cent. If new reactors are set up, and if they go critical without any time overrun, then this share will increase to at best eight per cent by 2020. This is inconsequential, given the rate at which demand for power is increasing by the day. Nor will an increase in the production of nuclear power decrease our demand for, and consumption of, oil — in India, oil is not used for generating energy. In other words, the money we will spend on acquiring nuclear power reactors will not be offset by savings in our oil import bill.
Which brings us to the cost of nuclear power. At present, power from existing nuclear reactors costs, after huge subsidies, between Rs 2.70 and Rs 2.80 per kWh. The coal-fired Sasan mega power project in Madhya Pradesh will be supplying power at Rs 1.196 per unit. The real cost of power from existing nuclear reactors is around Rs 4 per unit; the cost of power produced by new reactors will be around Rs 5.50 per unit. Compare this to the real cost of power produced at thermal plants: Rs 2.50 per unit. What the UPA Government, therefore, is seeking to achieve is to permanently raise the cost of power by leaps and bounds, a cost that will have to be paid by the masses whom Ms Gandhi addressed last week.
The story does not end here. We are being told that to cushion our energy needs from the volatile oil market, we need nuclear power. That’s hogwash: Our power sector is not dependent on oil. But that’s only one reason. The other reason why this argument does not hold is that the uranium market, monopolised by a clutch of suppliers and controlled by an even smaller group of countries, is as, if not more, volatile than the oil market. The international spot price of uranium has risen at a rate faster than that of oil. A little known fact — with hindsight deliberately suppressed by the Government — should help us understand just how volatile is the uranium market. Between 2005 (when the India-US nuclear deal was first proposed) and 2007 (when the 123 Agreement was finalised), the spot price of uranium has quadrupled. According to a June 2008 market assessment, a further 58 per cent increase is expected.
There is more to the story. And this is about who gains from the nuclear deal. American and French firms dealing with nuclear reactors and starved of orders — no new reactor has been set up in the US in the last 35 years; the first new reactor in Europe is being set up in Finland after 17 years and has already run into a huge cost escalation of more than $2 billion — are hoping to revive their fortunes by entering the Indian power sector. They are expecting business worth $100 billion over the next 20 years. Since they will not be footing the bill, the Government will have to either raise money from the market or pass on the buck to hapless consumers. With a fraction of this money, a lot more thermal, hydel and gas-fuelled power plants could have been set up to supply clean and affordable power to the people at less than half the cost of nuclear power.
Yet we are being told that nuclear power will benefit the masses. It is reminiscent of Marie Antoinette’s suggestion that starving French peasants who couldn’t afford bread could eat cake. Or, as a biographer has pointed out, what she really meant was they could eat “crumbs from a bread pan”.

The Pioneer / leading article / July 21, 2008

Saturday, July 19, 2008

For India's sake, Congress must go!

It's the PM's commitment; where does India fit into it?
Not nuclear empowerment, but bondage
Ever since the Left broke ranks with the Congress and withdrew its support to the UPA Government after the Prime Minister slyly authorised the circulation of the draft safeguards agreement with the IAEA and made its details public to the world while keeping them a secret from the people of India, a campaign has been launched to portray next Tuesday’s trust vote in the Lok Sabha into an up or down vote on the India-US civilian nuclear cooperation agreement. As always, the Congress is being deceitful: This is not a vote for or against the deal; it is a vote on whether this Government is deserving of Parliament’s, and, therefore, the nation’s trust. Given the Congress’s efforts to stack up numbers in its favours and the Prime Minister’s apparent lack of scruples about surviving in office with the help of convicted criminals, it is entirely possible that the Government may win Tuesday’s vote. But that will at best be a pyrrhic victory and in no way demonstrate that the charlatans in power enjoy the support of the masses.
Linked to this misleading campaign by the Congress and its drum-beaters is their attempt to portray divisions within the main Opposition, the BJP and the NDA, on the nuclear deal. On Saturday, Union Minister for Science and Technology Kapil Sibal claimed on television that senior BJP leader LK Advani had endorsed the nuclear deal during a meeting with the Prime Minister last year, and that his opposition to the deal was on account of pressure from some party colleagues. The meeting Mr Sibal has referred to was a classified briefing session with a condition attached to it: Neither the Government nor the BJP was to disclose details of what transpired to the media. Since Mr Sibal has violated the confidentiality clause, it would be in order to place on record that there was no such endorsement; on the contrary, questions raised by Mr Advani and his colleagues who attended the briefing still remain unanswered. It is tempting to disclose further details of what transpired during the briefing session, especially what was said by the Prime Minister, but I shall resist that temptation because to spit and scoot would be tantamount to emulating the Congress's cowardly tactics.
Suffice it to say that within 48 hours of the India-US joint statement of July 18, 2005, delineating the contours of the proposed nuclear deal — the final draft does not conform to those details and is far more discriminatory than was feared then — Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, speaking on behalf of the BJP, had registered his unqualified opposition on three basic counts. First, what was being offered by the Americans would, in the short-term, contain India’s strategic nuclear deterrence. Second, in the medium-term, it would curb India’s strategic nuclear capacity. Third, in the long-term, it would roll back India’s strategic nuclear programme.
Three years later, with the unveiling of the Hyde Act, the draft 123 Agreement and the draft safeguards agreement with the IAEA, those apprehensions have been proved to be prophetic. The deal, as it stands today, is not about empowering India, but emasculating our nation. It is not about enabling India to harness the civilian benefits of nuclear energy, but disabling our nation from maintaining a minimum credible deterrence. It is not about ending India’s so-called ‘isolation’, but lumping our nation with nuclear have-nots and bringing us into the non-proliferation regime through the backdoor.
In brief, the stage is being set for us to be denuded of the right to decide for ourselves what is good and in the best interest of the nation, to supplant our national strategic interest by foreign commercial and strategic interests, especially those of the US. If this deal, in its current form, is formalised, we will become a client state requiring approval and endorsement of every move we make to assert our independence and sovereign rights.
The UPA, more so the Congress, is a complicit partner in this elaborate charade to fool the people of this country while surreptitiously replacing India’s independent nuclear policy — including the nation’s nuclear strategy and nuclear doctrine — with one dictated by America. The decades of hard work put in by our scientists, enabling and empowering India to emerge as an equal of the P5, is being sacrificed for ‘gains’ that remain unexplained. The courage of conviction demonstrated by Mrs Indira Gandhi on May 18, 1974, has now come to be replaced by amoral duplicity.
In the past, India was enslaved by East India Company; our wealth was plundered to feed the British Empire’s greed. That unfettered loot was made possible by quislings and turncoats among us who were vulnerable to colonial manipulations. Today, we are on the verge of being indentured to the nuclear neo-colonialism of the 21st century, thanks to quislings and turncoats among us.
It is a fact that the BJP took the initiative to engage the US in a strategic dialogue, but it is also a fact that India was an equal participant and not a supplicant in that dialogue. Unlike the Communists, the BJP believes that a strategic alliance with the US is in India’s interest, as much as a strategic alliance with Russia and European powers. Unlike the Congress, the BJP believes that India today has the might and right to be treated as an equal and not as a nation deserving of crumbs from the high table. Hence, the BJP has been consistent in categorically asserting that it will renegotiate the nuclear deal to safeguard India’s interests by removing debilitating clauses when it comes to power. Unless this is done, India’s interests will be mortgaged irredeemably.
In the debate preceding Tuesday’s vote, the BJP should assert these points if it wishes to emerge as a credible alternative to the Congress. But, more importantly, it must strive to expose the despicable politics of the nuclear deal — the Dr Singh-and-Mr Hyde manner in which it has been ‘negotiated’; the shroud of secrecy that continues to hide the implications of rushing into an agreement that is blatantly loaded against India; the attempt to bluff the nation into believing something that is patently untrue; and, the belittling of India’s Parliament, and hence its people, not once or twice, but repeatedly.
Never before has a ruling party staked the Government of India to fulfil the ‘commitment’ of an individual to a foreign Government. In the past, Governments have fallen on account of internal policy issues or realignment of political forces. This is the first time that we are witnessing the impending fall of a Government because the Congress, which has already lost the political authority and moral right to remain in power, by its own admission, would rather have the UPA voted out than fail in keeping the Prime Minister’s ‘commitment’ to the Americans.
India can do without such a Government.

Friday, July 18, 2008

How CPM lost the game

An enraged Prakash Karat declares war on Congress...
... But he has only himself to blame
Ardhendu Bhushan Bardhan, I am sure, can’t stop telling himself that he had it right a year ago but his comrades, especially those in the CPI(M), would not listen to him. A quick recall of the events that followed the Prime Minister’s threat to call the Left’s bluff — “if they want to withdraw support, so be it” — conveyed to AK Gopalan Bhavan and Ajoy Bhavan through The Telegraph, would show this is no exaggeration, although people tend to scoff at the CPI of which Mr AB Bardhan is the general secretary. Rumours were rife — as they usually are in Lutyens’ Delhi even when there’s nothing much happening and the silly season has set in — that the Prime Minister was in high dudgeon (not for the first time) and had threatened to resign (also not for the first time) if he was not allowed to have his way with the India-US civilian nuclear cooperation agreement. The coordination committee that had been set up to win over the Communists had failed to break the logjam; Mr Prakash Karat was unbending in his opposition to the nuclear deal. And then came the Prime Minister’s interview to The Telegraph, asking the Left to go take a walk — they could either take it or lump it.
The Left got into a huddle, Mr Bardhan told mediapersons that the Congress-Left marriage of convenience had reached a dead end and “divorce is imminent”. The Congress as well as its allies in the UPA went into a tizzy. Many of those who are now vociferously proclaiming their support for the nuclear deal — and in the process talking a whole lot of gibberish while trying to regurgitate the mumbo-jumbo fed to them by babus eager to stack up American IOUs — had on that occasion turned on the Prime Minister, rudely snubbing him and his obsession with the nuclear deal. Finding himself isolated, the Prime Minister had rapidly retreated from his position and meekly declared his intention to learn to “live with disappointments”.
Mr Bardhan was not impressed. He was unrestrained in his assessment that any further discussion on the nuclear deal would be nothing more than a dialogue of the deaf. Given the CPI’s past association with the Congress — it had stood by Mrs Indira Gandhi and was no stranger to the party’s guiles — Mr Bardhan could sense that the parting of ways was inevitable; that it was only a matter of time before the ‘strategic’ alliance collapsed under the weight of inner contradictions. But he was ignored by Mr Karat while Mr Sitaram Yechury, who is trying to fashion his politics after that of Mr Harkishen Singh Surjeet (which, just in case his friends don’t get it, is no compliment) convinced his comrades that he would succeed in brokering a deal over the nuclear deal and everybody would live happily ever after. With Mr Pranab Mukherjee as the interlocutor, he couldn’t go wrong.
Last week’s events prove three points. First, Mr Karat may be a brilliant strategist in the classical Marxist mould but he is a poor tactician. The Congress, which is not burdened by ideology and hence not hostage to linear thinking, has checkmated the Left and finessed Mr Karat. Second, Mr Yechury may have begun to look like a political fixer (in Lutyens’ Delhi this is not a pejorative term), he has a long way to go before he can play the role of Mr Surjeet. He has been shown up for what he is: A callow politician who over-reached his abilities. Sanctimonious and smug, he is tireless in pouring scorn and spitting bile at others, especially the BJP, while disingenuously justifying every deed and each move of his party. Mr Yechury’s self-righteousness now lies in tatters; hopefully he will take a break from his preachy politics of denunciation. Third, the CPI(M) must start listening to its leftists allies, including the RSP, rather than ignoring them. If only Mr Karat had paid heed to Mr Bardhan’s views and taken his assessment seriously, then it would not have found itself dumped so unceremoniously by the Congress 11 months later. Adding insult to injury, the Samajwadi Party, which the CPI(M) thought was a fraternal party, has come forward to bail out the Congress. Bourgeois politics has won the day, but the battle has not yet been lost.
It is not often that one sees the unflappable and usually smiling Mr Karat in a rage. But the day after the Government authorised the circulation of the draft of the India-IAEA safeguards agreement among the members of the nuclear watchdog body’s Board of Governors, he was incandescent with rage. “We will make it politically impossible for the Government to implement the deal,” he thundered. Whether or not the Left is able to achieve this objective remains to be seen, but it can surely make the situation tricky for the Congress if it were to decide, and stick to its decision, not to prop up another Congress-led Government at the Centre in the name of ‘protecting democracy’ and ‘defeating communalism’. No, I am not suggesting that the Left should join hands with the BJP or the NDA; even the slightest hint of such a development, absurd and impossible as it may be, would hurt both of them politically. These are two poles that can never meet, not even in the ‘national interest’. Past efforts to uneasily cohabit have proved to be disastrous, notwithstanding elaborate breakfast meetings at Mr VP Singh’s residence. This is not about ‘political untouchability’ but political incompatibility.
Not many years ago, the CPI(M) believed that “the Congress party has degenerated both politically and organisationally. It is a party in decline, as it has pursued when in power, economic policies which militate against the people; it is a party riddled with corruption... The Congress is no more a party which can govern at the Centre or provide the country with a new agenda”. In the past decade, the Congress has not transformed itself into something which is different from what it was described as in the Left’s Election Manifesto of 1998, drafted and published by the CPI(M). Mr Karat’s recent experience only serves to reaffirm this point.
So, let him — and the CPI(M) as well as its allies — swear that never again shall the Left join hands with the Congress for the sheer pleasure of exercising power without responsibility. Then only can Mr Karat seek to make it politically difficult, if not impossible, for the Congress to cut corners with India’s interest. If there is no such resolve, then we can only assume that once his anger has dissipated, Mr Karat will allow a rerun of events as Mr Bardhan watches from the margins. The deja vu won’t be his alone.

Coffee Break / Sunday Pioneer / July 14, 2008

(c) CMYK Printech Ltd

Monday, July 07, 2008

Chutney as a political idiom

Indo-Caribbean culture and politics in Trinidad
The distance that ‘East Indians’ — men and women from what is known as the Bhojpur region, apart from those from Bengal, of whom there were few — indentured to work on sugarcane plantations in Mauritius, and later in British colonies in the Caribbean, travelled in jampacked ships and in abysmal conditions across the kala pani, was not only geographical but also cultural. Within a span of three to four months, the time taken by schooners to transport the indentured labourers from the dockside in Calcutta to the disembarkation jetties at Port Louis in Mauritius, Port of Spain in Trinidad, and other similar destinations, these men and women, fleeing what a historian has described as “the appalling poverty and joylessness of life under such conditions that cannot be easily pictured”, found themselves in an alien land with alien practices that violently clashed with their centuries-old religious and social traditions. Draupadi not only became Drupatee and Sriprasad was renamed Seepersaud, courtesy immigration clerks, but along with their new names they were also confronted with the choice of disowning their past or clinging on to it. Some disowned it; most refused to break free of all that they had learned and inherited by way of tradition, rites and rituals. Tattered copies of the Ramayan became the most valued possession; pandits with knowledge of Sanskrit found themselves pushed up the social ladder; and, despite its best efforts, the Presbyterian Church failed to separate ‘heathens’ from their ‘heathenism’.
In the post-colonial era, the cultural identity of the East Indian community — referred to as Indo-Caribbean in Trinidad & Tobago, Jamaica, Guyana and other Caribbean states — became the foundation of their political aspirations: Politics was, and remains, a means of protecting identity and asserting the right not to be swamped by Afro-Caribbean, or Black, culture. But for all their efforts, the East Indians have not entirely succeeded in this, as is evident from the creeping influence of Creole culture and Black culture, even among those who remain firmly rooted in Hindu traditions linking them to their homeland. The World Is What It Is: The Authorised Biography of VS Naipaul, by Patrick French, provides a certain insight into this conflict between past and present and the gradual accommodation and assimilation of cultures as memories recede with each passing generation. While keeping the past alive has been easier in Mauritius, where descendents of the indentured labourers are in a majority, it has been more difficult in the Caribbean where East Indian communities are suffering numerical erosion as the affluent among the new generation seek fame and fortune in the US and Europe. The uneven electoral performance of the United National Congress in Trinidad and Tobago and the trials and tribulations of Mr Basdeo Panday are indicative of the community’s declining numbers, although infighting and back-stabbing, the staple of politics in India, have played no mean role in preventing the UNC from becoming the dominant political force. The Afro-Caribbean politicians have not missed the opportunity to exploit the Indo-Caribbean community’s weaknesses to their advantage, thus retaining power when they should have really been in the Opposition.
The immediate provocation for these thoughts is a fine collection of essays in the journal, Man in India (Serial Publications, New Delhi), whose special issue on the Indian diaspora in the Caribbean provides a fascinating insight into the post-colonial lives of the descendents of indentured labourers. Edited by Prof Kumar Mahabir of the University of Trinidad & Tobago, among the best-known scholars of the East Indian experience, it brings together views from Trinidad, St Vincent, Suriname, Guyana and Martinique. My favourite is Kai Abi Barratt’s essay, ‘I found my East Indian beauty’. While reading it, I was transported back in time to an evening spent in the frangipani-scented lush lawns of the residence of Mr Basdeo Panday, who was then Prime Minister. After a sumptuous dinner, we were treated to live chutney music.
The relevance of the show dawned the next day when a group of young East Indian activists met me at the hotel and launched into a long tirade against the UNC Government for sponsoring that year’s calypso carnival and thus poking the community squarely in the eye. Afro-Caribbean musicians, I was told, use calypso to denigrate East Indians and flaunt their prowess by using sexual innuendoes: The wilting Indian beauty succumbing to the raw charms of the macho Black. An agitated young Maharaj, his first name slips my mind, said Mr Panday should have withdrawn official support for the calypso carinval and instead promoted chutney, integral to the East Indian culture, to make a political point. By not doing so, he had pandered to the Blacks at the cost of East Indian sentiments. Apparently, community elders had lodged a similar complaint with Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee. To disprove his critics, Mr Panday ensured there was a lot of chutney at the official dinner he hosted for the visiting Indian Prime Minister and we had a riotous time.
But like all things Indian, community opinion, it now transpires, is divided on chutney, described as “representing Indian cultural continuity and persistence” in the Caribbean, too. Drupatee Ramgoonai, the most popular exponent of chutney and whose album Pepper Pepper (Mirchi Mirchi in Hindi) was a huge hit, has riled community leaders with her lyrics and performance skills. In the popular chutney song, Lick down mih nani, she sings,
Lick down mih nani
He fender break
On nani waist
Now she can’t move
She two knee bruise
While he drivin he was gazin
Ah feeling sad, she bump she hard...
What is seemingly incomprehensible to us Indians in India is replete with shocking double entendre for conservative East Indians in Trinidad for whom Drupatee Ramgoonai’s music is as outrageous as that of Executor and Dictator, popular calypso artistes. Kai Abi Barratt quotes a Maharaj incandescent with rage, “For an Indian girl to throw away her upbringing and culture to mix with vulgar music, sex and alcohol in carnival tents tells me something is radically wrong with her psyche. Drupatee Ramgoonai has chosen to worship the gods of sex, wine and easy money.” In a sense, it’s the same old story of the past jostling with the present for a future that is tense.