N. Ram interviews top BJP leader L.K. Advani on the present political crisis, the nuclear deal, election prospects, and other key issues. The one-hour indepth interview was conducted at the residence of the Leader of the Opposition on Wednesday.
Advaniji, how do you see the present political situation in the country, with the Left withdrawing support and the Samajwadi Party being drafted in to make up the numbers along with smaller players?
It is surprising that this kind of final outcome should have taken so long. In fact, I will recall the first statement in this regard, which made everyone who follows political events feel that this alliance between the Left and the Congress could not continue for long. This was when the Prime Minister told The Telegraph correspondent, and perhaps consciously, that so far as the deal was concerned, the government had decided to finalise it. It was non-negotiable. And so if the Left parties didn’t like it, they were free to do what they wanted. I was told by those related to that interview that he wanted it to be published very prominently.
At least I assumed that this was very calculated and either they had decided, ‘All right, we’ll go to the people on this issue,’ or they had made alternative arrangements to continue in the government. Because 61 members is not a small figure. When you have two major partners in the government taking up positions of this kind, I said, ‘This is the starting point.’ Apart from the discussions held in both Houses of Parliament on this issue several times where it appeared that there was a wide gulf in the thinking. But even then, all the while, the replies given by the Prime Minister were of a nature that made Parliament feel, even we who were opposed to it for different reasons, that they would not agree to what America wanted, and that the assurances given in Parliament would be taken due care of either by America itself or if it did not do it, the deal would not go through in its present form.
I think it was some time in August 2007 that this exchange took place, the Prime Minister’s statement and the reply from the other side, in which Prakash Karat’s statements had been as resolute — I won’t use any other word. And it seemed that it was the end.
Unfortunately since then, the whole thing has been dragging on in a manner as to make even the common man feel that the government is not concerned with anything else. It’s concerned only with this and it is not able to make any progress. This is apart from the other factors, namely prices, the condition of the farmers, the repeated assaults on internal security either by the terrorists or by the naxalites, or even what’s happening around us, which often indicates a failure of foreign policy — numerous failed states around us, the happenings in Nepal …The common man, particularly agonised by prices and his day-to-day life, feels: ‘What kind of government is this, which seems so obsessed with one agreement that nothing else seems to matter with it!’ This is one main reason why the people have been getting more and more disillusioned with the government.
And the aam aadmi, who doesn’t go into the nuances … and for many in the country perhaps this is something esoteric, asks: ‘What is this deal, about which they are quarrelling so much?’ So when it came yesterday, I said: ‘At least, it’ll be a new chapter now.’ That chapter will depend very much on whether they are able to survive the vote of confidence that is going to be taken in Parliament. Today it seems it’s a close contest, at least on the face of it. And particularly if the reports about the Samajwadi Party are correct. Some say it is five, some say it is eight, I don’t know.
Are you satisfied with the government opting for a vote of confidence ahead of going to the IAEA Board of Governors, a demand that the BJP made first?
Yesterday, immediately after our meeting here, where we gave an official reaction on behalf of the party, I had a lecture. There I said, ‘I welcome it. I demanded it and I’m told they propose to have a special session soon and move a vote of confidence, seeking the approval of the Lok Sabha. Manmohan Singh said on the plane itself: ‘I’ll see to it that all parliamentary norms are observed.’ I said in this situation that’s the parliamentary norm. Because the government had been formed on the basis of the support extended to it by these 61 members of the Left parties, who have withdrawn their support. Whether others’ support will be forthcoming or not is a subsequent matter. It has to be tested on the floor of the House.
If the government fails to win the vote, an early general election is certain. If it makes it through, as it evidently expects to do, what will the political scenario look like? Will it strengthen the stock of the Con gress party and the UPA ahead of the 15th general election? That’s the big question.
Suppose, for instance (as it is said), they propose to convene a special session of the Lok Sabha on the 21st of July. If they win a vote of confidence, the situation continues to be what it is today. Then the option is before them of holding an early general election or holding it in 2009. It’s their choice. But if they lose this confidence vote, I’m sure they will resign. The President will ask them to continue until alternative arrangements can be made, which means until the elections are held and another government comes in.
The situation today is that if the Central government asks the Election Commission to prepare for the Lok Sabha election, the Election Commission, as I can see it, is sure to tell them that by November so many State Assembly elections are due. So the Lok Sabha election can be held along with them. That would be what seems natural. These are the two possibilities, unless the Election Commission wants to advance one or some of those Assembly elections. The States due to go to the polls are Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Jammu & Kashmir, and Mizoram. It should not be difficult to hold these Assembly elections together and link up the Lok Sabha elections with them.
But during this period, however short or long it is, do you see the Congress and the UPA improving their political stock?
What improvement can come about at this point of time? It’s the fag end. Everyone — the government as well as the opposition as well as the Communist parties — will all be engaged in preparing for the elections. And a government which has lost a vote of confidence in the House would have no choice for taking any new initiatives. That’s a parliamentary convention.
You have listed the key issues before the people, as you see them. At a time of 13 per cent inflation, how will implementing the nuclear deal play with the electorate?
My own feeling all along has been that the nuclear deal is not an issue of the people. After all, the proposal is, ‘We are short of energy sources and nuclear energy will provide us the wherewithal — after 25 years!’ And that too a small percentage of our requirements. It is welcome, whatever it is. But it is not crucial, it is not vital for the people.
We were against it but we reiterate that our opposition to this deal has been different from that of the Communist parties. The Communist parties feel — they may not have spelt it out that way, but I found an article in your newspaper that is quite clear on that — that we are accepting their [the United States’s] supremacy over us by becoming part of their strategic alliance. It’s not merely the 123 agreement by itself. We are opposed to the 123 agreement because it is also preceded by the Hyde Act. We do not agree with the government’s stand that ‘the Hyde Act has nothing to do with us, we are governed only by the 123 agreement.’ Whenever they have made a statement of this kind, it has been immediately rebutted by the American spokesman.
Therefore, our objection has been not to the strategic relationship, which 123 may involve. Our objection has been to the Hyde Act, which imposes a constraint on our strategic options in the nuclear field. Furthermore, I would say, it was during our period, when we were in government — we did not start the nuclear deal, as is often said — but we did start the process of strategic relationship. I for one — it was not my Ministry at all — but I said several times that India and the USA are the two major democracies of the world — one the strongest, the other the largest. It would be in the interest of the world, of these two countries themselves, if there is a relationship beyond merely friendship. If you call it a ‘strategic relationship,’ it is fine. It should be there.
So we are not against any strategic relationship with the USA. In fact, I would feel that the Communist parties, after all that has happened, also should be able to get out of that mindset. After all, during that entire period of the Cold War, we also were never very favourable to the USA. Because at that time, their relationship was entirely with Pakistan. They were hostile to us. In a way, it is America which has made even the Congress government change Pandit Nehru’s approach of utilising nuclear energy only for peaceful purposes. That was a consistent policy followed by India not only when it was under the Congress regime of Pandit Nehru but even when it came to Morarji Desai, in whose government we also were there. (Vajpayee was there, I was there.) Before going to the U.N. once, when he was to make a speech about nuclear weapons, he categorically said, ‘India will never go in for nuclear weapons.’ Categorical. He read it out to us deliberately, because he knew ours was the only party in the country which had been advocating that course of action.
So it was America which during the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971 sent its nuclear fleet here. It was this which prompted Indira Gandhi to go in for Pokhran-I in ’74. She did Pokhran-I in ’74; we completed the process in ’98. In between, efforts were made but somehow they were not completed. Preparations were made but they were not executed. I don’t want to go into all that. Once [former President R.] Venkataraman, in a book release function, publicly complimented Vajyapee-ji for what he had done, saying ‘When I was Defence Minister, this was planned but somehow we could not go forward with it. I compliment you for completing it.’
I am referring to all this because there is that basic difference between what happened in our time [and the rest]. And yet our relations with America — yes, they imposed sanctions on us. I cannot forget that Pokhran-II was criticised not only by the Leftists but even by Dr. Manmohan Singh in the Rajya Sabha. He severely criticised us. ‘Why have you done it?’ There was a very sharp exchange between my colleague K.R. Malkani, Editor of The Organiser, who was a BJP member of the Rajya Sabha, and Manmohan Singh. He said he did not buy the argument that the economic sanctions would not hurt India, ‘You do not understand what will happen to the country’s economy by what you have done!’ Malkani said, ‘Nothing will happen. You wait and watch.’ Actually nothing happened. One by one, all those restrictions were lifted. In fact, today some of those restrictions imposed after ’74 may be continuing but not those imposed after ’98.
Basically I feel, for a long time America has been wanting to make every non-nuclear country part of the non-proliferation regime, by having them sign the NPT. Even Pandit Nehru or Morarji Desai, who were not in favour of making India a nuclear weapon state, said: ‘We are not going to sign any Treaty which binds us now.’
Our complaint about this [deal] is that in the name of energy autonomy, you are surrendering our strategic autonomy. This is what we oppose.
One criticism of your stand is that there is an underlying continuity of nuclear policy between 1998 and now. In the sense Prime Minister Vajpayee made a number of policy commitments, for example on joining the CTBT a nd the unilateral moratorium on nuclear explosive testing, and this was continued through the Jaswant-Talbott talks.
I know that. When any country by itself says something, there is no restriction or a change in policy. And secondly, even the argument given now, that in any case there will be economic sanctions, that is always there. But economic sanctions coming, as they came in ’98 or as they came in ’74, were not because we violated any law or violated any agreement or any international commitment. This would be a violation of an international commitment. If we sign this agreement, we accept the Hyde Act. At one stage, therefore, what I had suggested was this — if they discussed it at length with us, we might have suggested it. I said, ‘All right, after all the Hyde Act is a domestic law of America. Let our legal experts consider whether India’s own Atomic Energy Act can be amended in a way as to insulate India from the consequences of the Hyde Act. Let’s examine that.’
One of my biggest complaints about this government, and Dr. Manmohan Singh personally, has been that if they were really so serious about it that they have brought their own government to the brink on this basis, what was the difficulty in accepting our suggestion that ‘this matter has been discussed thrice in Parliament after you signed that joint statement with President Bush; and numerous misgivings, numerous questions have been raised. You have answered many of them very categorically: “If this does not happen, then the deal will not take place.”
Let a parliamentary committee examine all that and then make the suggestion to you. If they had done that, we would have made this suggestion there. We would have offered other suggestions also. Instead of that, first they said that no committee could be formed in respect of a proposed international agreement. And then they formed a committee with the Left. A UPA-Left committee was formed, which again and again … even today Prakash Karat was quoting that: ‘This is what they have said, this is what they have said.’ It’s a very curious way of running the government and a very curious way of implementing something you think is very important.
One last question on this particular issue. I think the BJP’s position is, should you come into government, as is distinctly possible, after the 15th general election, you will renegotiate the deal. You said that about WTO earlier. Is it feasible, is it practicable to renegotiate this agreement, assuming it goes through?
If it is not practicable, if America says, ‘No, we are not going to renegotiate,’ we will naturally deal with the situation as it is there. But the objective is there. Sometimes people say, ‘You do not agree with this agreement. So will you rescind it, scrap it?’ I would like to tell them that if the major objection to this is that it brings us into a strategic relationship with America, that’s not our objection. A strategic relationship with America, as I have said, was first talked about when we were there. The objection is particularly to the Hyde Act. So our objective of renegotiation would be: Is it feasible to reword this agreement or to do something? The option of having our own domestic law, which insulates us from the consequences of the Hyde Act, is always open. This is what we would examine.
(Part II of the interview will follow.)