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25 July 2008

India’s nuclear battle

As George Bush urges India to push ahead with a highly controversial civil nuclear deal corruption a

By Nick Harvey

US President George W Bush has urged India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to push ahead with a controversial deal on nuclear power between the two countries in the wake of a key confidence vote in New Delhi.

The issue has divided opinion as supporters argue it is the only way to keep pace with the energy demands of India’s fast-growing economy. But many remain deeply suspicious of a deal they fear will cede too much influence to America.

“The whole thing is not about what is best for the Indian people,” said Samil Kumar, a businessman from Calcutta. “It is about lining the pockets of politicians on both sides of this filthy covenant.”

For though India’s government may have survived this week’s vote of confidence the win was marred by serious corruption allegations pouring fuel on the fire of already flaming suspicion.

The ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) came through by an unexpectedly high margin of 19 votes. Yet only hours before the vote took place there were scenes of high drama in the Lok Sabha parliament building when members of the opposing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) marched up to the secretary general’s table and began pulling out large bundles of cash from a black holdall. They claimed the money, totalling 10 million rupees (£118,000) was the first installment of a 90 million rupee (£1.1 million) bribe paid to the party by government supporting politicians to ensure three BJP members would abstain from the crucial vote.

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The vote was triggered after the government’s left-wing allies withdrew their support for the nuclear deal struck with the US in 2005. The pact will give India, which has not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, access to US nuclear technology and fuel for civilian use. In return, India’s civilian nuclear facilities would be opened to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Those in favour of the deal argue it will help meet India’s escalating energy demands:

“Our economy has been growing at a rate of 8-9% over the last decade,” says Vishal Budda, an engineer from Delhi. “We simply need nuclear energy to keep the momentum running.”

Yet many Indians are suspicious of America’s interest as well as its intentions.

“This deal will just make us a junior partner of the U.S.,” says Vikram Mittal, President of the Haryana Student Federation of India. “America is trying to hijack our foreign and national policies. First it will be the nuclear deal, then it will be agricultural deals, then education- before we know it we will be another puppet of the U.S.”

India is under pressure from Washington to sign the accord before the U.S. presidential elections in November. Some think this pressure is an indication that America will be the real winners from this agreement.

“This deal will generate over 100 billion dollars worth of business for the U.S,” says Bhadra Kumar, a left-wing diplomat. “And it will also give them more power to maintain there dominance over the Muslim world if India is a close ally. But what do we get? Expensive power when our people are already going hungry.”

Many on the left suspect the deal has nothing to do with India’s energy needs.

“Nuclear power provides only 3 per cent of India’s current energy and this will not change massively in the near future,” says Mohammed Thallath, student of International Relations. “We have an abundance of natural resources here as well as energy security through the supply of gas from Iran. No, this is all about money – it may generate business for India but more importantly it will generate massive kickbacks for the politicians.”

India is indeed only too familiar with such corruption. A study by the campaign group Transparency International in 2005 found that more than 50 per cent of Indians had firsthand experience of paying a bribe or peddling influence to get a job done in public office. Even before the thick bundles of cash were waved around in the parliament building on Tuesday, there had been serious allegations of foul-play surrounding this vote. A week before, the leader of the Communist Party, A.B. Bhardan, argued it was no secret that votes were being exchanged for large amounts of money: “It is not a question of a few million but more than 250 million rupees (£3 million) for this horsetrading,” he said at a public meeting last week.

It is an indication of the importance of the deal with the US that both those in favour as well as those against the agreement have been trying desperately to woo members of parliament with promises of influence and lucrative jobs. One prominent MP, Ajit Singh, was even offered to have an airport named after his father, Charan Singh, a former prime minister. The government insisted the timing of this offer was purely coincidental.

As well as the cash, the BJP claim to have hidden camera footage of a member of the government-supporting Samajwadi Party (SP) handing them the money.

SP leader Amar Singh, one of the MP’s being accused, insists the allegations are baseless: “This is a conspiracy by the BJP. If they have such a tape why don’t they just show it?”

If the accusations are proven to be true it will prove a massive embarrassment for the government and its allies and those involved could face lengthy prison sentences under the 1988 Prevention of Corruption Act.

The BJP may be taking the high moral ground this time but the party is no stranger to corruption allegations itself. In 2001, the BJP’s president at the time, Bangaru Laxman, was caught on film casually accepting the equivalent of a £1500 bribe to give the go-ahead for the Indian military to buy hand-held thermal imaging cameras from journalists posing as arms dealers.

This high profile sting exposed an intricate web of official corruption which ran vertically to almost the very top of Indian politics. But after the initial uproar things soon returned to normal, the defence minister resigned only to be reinstated, and it became clear exposure made little difference.

The Indian government may have won its confidence vote but many Indians feel the chaotic scenes shown on Tuesday from inside the parliament, the first time a vote of this kind had been fully covered live on television, have left a permanent stain on India’s reputation as the world’s largest democracy.

“It is so embarrassing,” says Monika Mehra, a shop worker from Delhi. “The whole world was watching that circus, I can only guess what they must be thinking about our country.”

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