Interview: Prakash Karat

Towards becoming a subordinate ally

Print edition : February 20, 2015

Prakash Karat (centre) and, to his left, D. Raja, Communist Party of India national secretary and Rajya Sabha member, along with others at a protest against U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to India, in New Delhi on January 24 . Photo: S. Subramanium

Interview with Prakash Karat, general secretary, Communist Party of India (Marxist).

The three-day visit to India of United States President Barack Obama, with its emphasis on issues that went beyond trade and the economy, caused some consternation among the Left parties and other groups. After the visit, they expressed justifiable concern over the dilution of the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act, 2010, and the extension of the controversial defence agreement between the countries. They also articulated their apprehension that India might become a subordinate ally or a vassal state of the U.S. Prakash Karat, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), spoke to Frontline on some of the crucial areas that deserve attention.

Sections of the intelligentsia and the government have generally hailed President Barack Obama’s visit as a path-breaking achievement. What would you say has been the outcome of this visit?

The Obama visit and the talks held with Prime Minister Narendra Modi have resulted in a deepening of the strategic alliance between the U.S. and India. The pillars of this alliance have always been defence collaboration and the nuclear deal. On both these, there has been a strengthening of ties. Further, the Modi government has shown itself to be more eager to align itself with the U.S.’ strategy in Asia.

Looking at some of the specifics, there have been several areas, such as those relating to defence and security, in which an understanding seems to have been arrived at.

The U.S. has succeeded in getting India into a long-term military agreement, which was arrived at during the UPA [United Progressive Alliance] government in 2005. This 10-year agreement is now being renewed for another 10-year period. The details of this agreement are not yet available. But if the previous framework is anything to go by, it can be said that such a defence pact will draw India into the status of a military ally of the U.S. In the previous treaty, there were provisions for agreements like the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA), which entailed India providing its naval and air force bases for the use of the American armed forces for refuelling, maintenance, etc. Because of the opposition of the Left parties and other concerned forces, the UPA government did not sign this agreement or the Communications and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement. We have to see whether the Modi government has agreed to sign such agreements, which are normally undertaken by the NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organisation] partners of the U.S. Along with this, the U.S. interest has been to sell major weaponry to India. The Defence, Trade and Technology Initiative is meant to facilitate this arms trade. The U.S. would like India to become dependent on it for arms.

Another area of contention is the joint strategic vision on the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions. There were some reactions from China on this as well. There were many reports to suggest that containing China was one of the significant areas under discussion.

The joint strategic vision statement shows that India has lined up fully with the U.S. In the U.S. pivot to Asia, India is to play a key role. The strategic pivot to the Asia- Pacific region is designed to contain China. If you read the joint vision statement, it is clear that India has aligned itself to the U.S.’ strategic goals. Modi has already gone ahead in forging military and security ties with Japan and Australia. So the quadrilateral alliance is very much in the offing between the U.S., Japan, Australia and India.

If you are declaring your intent to join hands with the U.S. in its strategic design to contain China, you can expect China to respond, react. Earlier too, China had protested against the move for a quadrilateral alliance. It is not in India’s interest to play America’s game in Asia.

The perceived attempts to dilute the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act, indemnifying American nuclear vendors in the eventuality of an accident caused by design defects, etc. have predictably raised the concerns of several groups.

The nuclear liability issue must be seen in the context of the unprincipled concessions that were made for civil nuclear cooperation with the U.S. in 2008. India had committed itself to buying 10,000 megawatts of nuclear reactors from the U.S. This was an unnecessary step on our part except as a move to appease the U.S. nuclear lobby commercially. The idea that India can produce huge amounts of power through imported nuclear reactors is unviable. We had also made another commitment to legislate a nuclear liability law. We should protect and indemnify the U.S. companies who supply nuclear reactors. After the nuclear deal was finalised in 2008, the UPA government brought the civil nuclear liability Bill in Parliament. They brought the Bill to protect the companies, not to make them liable. However, Parliament amended the Bill and adopted it, providing for the liability of the suppliers and the right to recourse of the operator. This was done by Parliament keeping in mind the dismal experience of the Bhopal gas tragedy where the victims could not get justice or compensation vis-a-vis Union Carbide.

The U.S. has not accepted this nuclear liability law. It has been trying for the past four years to get the Indian government to change the law or circumvent it. The UPA II government tried its best but could not fully succeed. Now the Modi government is seeking to undo the provisions of the Act which the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] had helped to pass in Parliament. There can be no more shameless step which concerns the vital question of the life and safety of the Indian people. What the Modi government seems to have done is to effectively transfer the liability of American companies onto Indian shoulders. Indian public sector insurance companies are to create a pool of Rs.750 crore, and another Rs.750 crore is to be put in by the government. So taxpayers’ money will underwrite the U.S. companies. The other measure proposed to give a clarification to Section 46 [of the Act], which provided the right to sue by victims of an accident against the operator or supplier, is a dubious step. This is aimed at circumventing Section 46. Any such “memorandum of law” by the Attorney General cannot substitute for the actual section in the Act. Ultimately, this exercise is fruitless and only for meeting the commercial interests of U.S. companies. Imported nuclear plants are going to be exorbitantly expensive and the power produced by them will also be costly and unviable. This applies to all imported nuclear plants whether they are from France or Russia.

Overall, do you see much of a difference between the UPA’s foreign policy vision vis-a-vis the U.S. and that of the Modi-led BJP government?

All in all, the Obama visit has proved that the BJP government led by Modi is more pro-American than its predecessor. In the process, it will give further concessions to the U.S. in economic and trade relations. The danger is that the Modi government will dilute India’s patent regime. Already, a working group has been set up under American pressure on intellectual property rights. American corporates and MNCs [multinational corporations] are going to get special treatment in taxes and transfer pricing issues. Already, the Modi government has passed an ordinance for FDI [foreign direct investment] in insurance to signal more opportunities for U.S. business in India. Many of the proposed agreements are meant to promote American business interests. The $4-billion loan pledge by President Obama is for buying American products. Instead of “make in India”, the Modi government is promoting “made in U.S.” Under Modi, we can expect to have a subordinate relationship with America.

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