Consensus then, roadblock now

Updated - November 16, 2021 05:55 pm IST

Published - January 25, 2015 03:11 am IST - New Delhi

File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. President Barack Obama.

File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. President Barack Obama.

Leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress routinely claim in private a broad political consensus in India regarding the country’s relations with the United States, but the devil in the detail often makes it a troublesome question of domestic politics in India.

Ahead of President Barack Obama’s arrival, the Congress reminded the BJP of the fact that the ruling party had bitterly opposed a strategic partnership with the U.S. while it was in the Opposition. “We are happy there is a course correction by the BJP and Narendra Modiji,” Anand Sharma, Deputy Leader of the Congress in the Rajya Sabha, said.

He underscored the fact that the provisions of India’s nuclear liability law that were now points of contention with the U.S. were included at the instance of the BJP, and warned the government against deviating from the national consensus on the issue.

The agreement during the rule of the United Progressive Alliance-2 between the Congress and the BJP over these provisions made the liability law such a sticking point that the consensus now appears counterproductive. “Many clauses of the law, particularly the amendments both in 17A and 17B clauses and 46 were at the insistence of the then Leader of the Opposition, Arun Jaitley. It has to be within the four corners of India’s legal framework and the Act of Parliament,” said Mr. Sharma, who said the Congress would like to see the civil nuclear agreement with the U.S. operationalised. The Modi government is talking to U.S. interlocutors to resolve disagreements over these provisions of the liability law.

The Congress, while cautioning the government on specific issues such as conceding the U.S. demands on TRIPS Plus norms for India’s intellectual property regime, set benchmarks to assess the outcome of Mr. Obama’s visit.

“We hope that the Totalisation agreement will be signed during this visit. This would be a benchmark for us to test the successful outcome,” Mr. Sharma said. Another benchmark is an agreement on technology transfer in defence production.

But is there a consensus among political parties on Indian’s relations with the U.S.? “Yes, there is,” says Congress MP and Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs Shashi Tharoor. “Other than reflexive national pride and disinclination to be seen as doing the superpower’s bidding on anything, not many domestic factors” influence India’s relations with the U.S., Mr. Tharoor said.

“There is clearly a consensus, across the political spectrum [with the exception of the Left] that there must a robust, multi-track and close partnership with the U.S. It is a function of our polarised Manichean domestic politics that parties necessarily oppose while in opposition what they supported while in power. This is unfortunate,” said Amitabh Mattoo, Professor of International Relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and foreign policy analyst.

CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Sitaram Yechury said the consensus over engagement with the U.S. was only among the leadership of the Congress and the BJP.

“It is true that the Left is the only organised political group that is opposing the kind of engagement that the Modi government is pursuing with the U.S. But that does not mean a national consensus. Dissenting voices are heard all over, including from the Swadeshi Jagran Manch and the RSS.”

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