Lying to the legislature

Maybe, maybe not. It does not matter

The Indian prime minister told his legislature that India has the right to conduct a nuclear test. The US president told his, that the United States has the right to cease co-operation and repossess whatever was sold to India. Neither is being untruthful. But it is amazing that many Indians should automatically assume that it is their prime minister who lied to their parliament. Surely, they can’t be unaware of the rich tradition of US presidents lying to the US Congress?

The spanner that the non-proliferation ayatollahs threw into the works at the Nuclear Suppliers Group does not change the essential logic. As this blog has argued before, speeches, letters, understandings and agreements do not matter as much as the interests of the two countries. The editorial of the Times of India got it right:

At the end of the day, the US cannot take any position other than to assert that it has the right to terminate cooperation in such an eventuality. On India’s part, we have been equally vigorous in maintaining our right to test in compelling circumstances. This argument would be decided by sovereign decisions and national interests, not by legalistic wording. [TOI]

28 thoughts on “Lying to the legislature”

  1. I think we should immediately seek an agreement with UK, whereby UK makes a written commitment to never colonize India again. It just struck me that Brits never made any such commitment while leaving India. Not even a voluntary moratorium on colonialism!

    More seriously, this hysteria to get every damn thing in writing has to be one of the two things (or a combination thereof): political necessity of opposition, or a lack of confidence in India’s abilities.

    Never thought a day would come when I would agree with an excerpt from ToI.

  2. BOK,

    The political necessity of opposition it is, for surely, our political leaders can’t be less astute—on matters of realpolitik—than our newspaper editors.

    As for the punditry, what better than a series of documents and agreements, written in diplomatese, concerning nuclear physics (literally) to hold forth on?

  3. Nitin:

    It was saddening to see Arun Shourie behaving like zealot on this… Yashwant Sinha and Karat make no difference with what they say and how they behave.

    Really sad… and amazingly naive of the public to be caught up in the hyperbole generated by numerous TV channels in India. Bihar and Singur can wait…

  4. Nitin, surely things are not as simple as you make them out to be. Mr. Kakotdkar has said that he had no idea about such a letter. Given the fact that the government tom-tommed his approval of the deal, doesn’t it give a new complexion to the whole thing ?

    The point is not whether we have the right to test, the point is about the consequences of a test. This is kind of like freedom of speech, where its all about whether you will be safe and sound after the speech, rather than your incapability to speak at all. Then there is this business of Hyde Act, which GoI doesn’t apply to us, but the letter says it does. Without going into the legalities of the whole thing, we should again look at the possible consequences. The US didnt have the UN mandate to invade Iraq, but we all know what happened. Given that we are going to spending billions of dollars on nuke energy post this deal, shouldn’t these things be taken into account ?

  5. >>The Indian prime minister told his legislature that India has the right to conduct a nuclear test.

    Can he quote his exact words? Did he say that India can test without putting its fuel supplies in jeopardy?

    Now suppose India does test. Let us for argument’s sake accept that US’s intentions are all goody-goody, Hyde Act notwithstanding, their secret correspondences notwithstanding, the more candid admissions of the Bouchers and Burnses notwithstanding. Now, when India does test, how’s our friend in need, the US, going to thwart these proliferation ayatollahs who’re giving us such a tough time right now, even before we test?

  6. And by the way, lying to the Congress has a far larger consequence in the US, still. No Prime Minister has ever been impeached in India.

  7. AC, Oldtimer,

    The arguments for and against the deal have been made, not least on this blog, before. Testing will have consequences, with or without a deal. Not having a deal will have consequences with or without testing.

    My opinion remains the same: that the deal is worth having, even if we take the worst case scenario wherein the US immediately terminates the deal the moment India conducts a test.

  8. AC

    If you want to go by Dr Kakodkar’s statements, you should have no objections.

    Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Mr Anil Kakodkar on Thursday said the US disclosures on the nuclear deal do not take away anything India wanted and there was “adequate protection” for its strategic programme in the civil nuclear deal with Wa shington.

    He said India knew about the letter written by the US State Department in January to Mr Tom Lantos, the then Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, but was caught unawares by its release.

    “I also knew that this (US State Department letter to the Congress) has been asked to be kept classified. But I did not know that this will be released at this juncture,” Mr Kakodkar said.

    “But now they have released the document…. A quick reading tells me that it actually doesn’t take away anything whatever we have been saying here in India before,” he told NDTV. [The Hindu BusinessLine]

  9. Let’s say the NSG does pass the deal (although Siddharth Varadarajan reckons it seems unlikely at the time he filed his report). There’s still no compulsion on India’s part to source technology & fuel from the US. Once it has been okayed by the NSG, we could enter into agreements with Russia, France, Australia (?), etc. and get the fuel & technology that we need.

    The Hyde act essentially also talks about not disadvantaging US firms vis-a-vis firms from other countries when dealing with India. If we don’t even consider US firms (because if we did touch them, then the various “You can do this, you can’t do this” defined by US laws come into force), then of course the US can armtwist other suppliers into backtracking from their commitments.

    But that’d be a little unlikely, especially in the case of Russia. So, I reckon we could still end up with a scenario where we source the bulk of our fuel & technology requirements from countries other than the USA.

  10. >>Testing will have consequences, with or without a deal

    Sure. But that’s not what our PM is saying. And that’s what the discussion is about.

    I’d normally be in favor of the deal too. But there’s great subterfuge going on. In newspaper reports, from headlines to copy to editorials, there’s a tremendous amount of spin — forget about neutral reporting, they are actually peddling the government line. It’s as if the copy came from PMO. There’s manufacture of a consent, a dubious one at that. That doesn’t make me comfortable. I’d rather be in favor of a deal that the government pushed through in the teeth of opposition, but without attempting to manipulate public opinion. There ought to have been free disclosure of facts and a fair debate. Instead, there’s cover-up and spin.

  11. @ anonymous coward
    I saw kakodkar saying on tv yesterday that the letter changes nothing.

    I don’t get the big deal about it, though.

    Simple analogy: When you get married, u promise not to screw around. She cooks and u eat. If you do, your wife will walk out and well, u get no food. U want to screw around, you accept the consequences.

    India will test if India has to. US will back out at that point if their internal / international situation makes them want to.

    This will happen despite any agreement, countries have sovereign interests. Our internal laws, and their laws may win the day. Big deal.

    The Indian government does not come out and say this clearly – diplomatic stuff is never about being direct.

    BJP and CPM act like once the deal is operation, we cannot test. If we have to, we will test and face the consequences.

    Bird in hand, bird in bush…

  12. Oldtimer,

    The less said about our PM the better. But matters of national importance should not be affected by our verdict on his performance (or lack thereof).

  13. >> United States has the right to cease co-operation and repossess
    >> whatever was sold to India.

    What happens to the money India paid for those sold by US ? Will it be deposited into the same/similar account where our neighbor’s money for F16s went ?

    NSG approval is only for the deal with US. If you want a similar deal with other countries, then you may have to go thru a similar process in NSG.

  14. Invalid,

    Wrong on both counts. Deal between the governments is a framework agreement. The India-US agreement is an enabling framework, not a commercial agreement. Commercial contracts will follow.

    NSG approval is for all NSG countries. That’s the whole point.

  15. @invalid,

    Dude, you got it upside down with respect to the F-16s. Once the goods are in India, the bargaining situation with respect to refunds is quite different.


    Are you sure you got that right? I recall it says somewhere that due compensation will be paid.

  16. OT.

    Bill O’Reilly scored an interview with Obama this week. The first part is on this website “” and Obama talks about Pakistan. He goes as far to admit that the aid provided to Pakistan is routed to be used against India. This is no new revelation but interesting nonetheless to see a presidential aspirant speak to this issue.

  17. @Ramu:

    your analogy is not totally correct. A more apt one will be something like you come late from office once, due to workload and she walks out on you. Nothing ‘wrong’ on your part, just the fact that the deal you made had a condition that you will be back before 7.

    Your analogy is more like India peddles nuclear know-how to other countries and gets caught with its pants down.

    I agree with Oldtimer, there is too much spin going on and its smells pretty fishy to me.

  18. As a general rule, anthropomorphic analogies should be avoided while discussing international affairs.

  19. A clean and not terribly conditional NSG waiver will be worth it, IMO.

    There’s technically no need to trade any-N-thing with the US after the waiver, unless there are secret agreements GoI gave the US in writing that such % of trade will be with them onlee.

  20. Nitin,

    “As this blog has argued before, speeches, letters, understandings and agreements do not matter as much as the interests of the two countries. ”

    Well, if that were the case there won’t be much point in going through the charade. Obviously, the signatories do think about ensuring contractual obligations in case either signatory fouls up. I believe people like Shourie and Chellaney are insisting on the subtleties of contractual verbiage precisely because we cannot enforce our side of the bargain as and when we end up testing the nukes(I hope you’ll agree that we have to, for a reliable deterrent). Whether we’re going to be powerful is not a question as to how much our real influence be at the time of opting out is.

    One can always blame the opposition as partisan, but it cannot be denied that the govt’s partisans have done a lousy job with presenting countervailing arguments to theirs.

  21. ‘This argument would be decided by sovereign decisions and national interests, not by legalistic wording.’

    Precisely. These are agreements between sovereign countries acting in their self-interest, not a legal contract that can be enforced in a court of law. In fact, it is surprising how the BJP and the Left kept quoting stuff from the Hyde Act as though India is being asked to follow it!

  22. The deal is done!

    Not really sure about this (will have to check).. but the NSG waiver should mean that India can go ahead and sign commercial deals with other countries without waiting for the seal of approval by the US Congress. That should be US’s headache.

  23. The deal is done (confirmed).

    Awaiting release of the agreement text to see what the equilibrium outcome was in legalese.

    Job well done to the negotiating team (in advance, pending some major gaffes in the text such as required adherence to the FMCT or CTBT etc).

    China forced to reveal its under-hand. Bush and Condi worked the phones on the top leadership of the 6 pipsqueak ‘holdout nations’.

    Plenty more shall stand revealed in the hrs and days 2 come.

  24. BOK,

    I didn’t read your long second paragraph. With all the champagne, it’s difficult to read long sentences

  25. Too much spin, too few facts. I have been mildly deal-positive. Lately, however, I have been a bit concerned with the oversell from the US side. What is in it for the US to push for the deal SO SO hard? Surely, the US is not doing this out of love and affection for India. Something smells fishy?

  26. @Raag
    The US has it’s own vested interests, no doubt. There were some statistics in The Times of India and DNA about how the deal will be generating thousands of jobs in the US and also allow private firms to cash in on the agreement. That is why they’ve been pushing the deal so much.

    I believe that their statements about “helping” India become a superpower are more like small-talk, if nothing else. Sycophancy is the word.

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