A startling even surreal headline appeared on the front page of the Times of India (TOI) online, a few hours after the conclusion of the tense political drama of the trust vote in Parliament (July 21-22, 2008). Rahul talks about Kalawati but she has not eaten in two days proclaimed the headline. The linking of the name of the Congress party heir apparent, Rahul Gandhi, with that of a complete unknown and the wrenching revelation about Kalawati together made for the kind of headline that causes the shocked and bewildered viewer to pause before clicking to access the story. Kalawati’s story turns out to be one of bleak, probably lifelong, never-ending struggle for survival in the Vidarbha region which the stirring, conscience awakening journalism of P.Sainath has rendered into an emblem of the national crisis of agriculture in the era of neoliberal economic reforms. Kalawati was burdened with the responsibility of providing single-handedly for her children when her husband committed suicide to escape the pressures of indebtedness. She had not eaten in the last two days because there simply wasn’t enough food to feed the family of five members. Rahul Gandhi came to know her story when he visited the village of Jalka on a fact finding mission in his capacity of Prime Minister in waiting and dropped by her hut. When his turn arrived to participate in the Lok Sabha debate that preceded the trust vote, the Congress Member of Parliament spoke at some length of the all but destitute Kalawati and claimed that she stood to benefit from nuclear energy!
Amid the ugly opportunism and rank political prostitution surrounding the trust vote, Rahul Gandhi’s muddled logic might appear to be relatively innocuous as political misdeeds go. As against a victory engineered by buying the support of adversarial or fence-sitting political groups with favors to corporate cronies and promises of cabinet berths, granting jailbird Members of Parliament respite from incarceration for the purpose of casting their vote on the Prime Minister’s behalf and poaching votes from Opposition groups with multimillion dollar bribes, the earnest, blundering efforts of the heir apparent to appear statesman-like might be regarded as mere clumsiness were it not part and parcel of the propaganda that has generated hysterical and, for the most part, uninformed support for the nuclear deal among India’s ruling elites and US based NRIs (non-resident Indians). The latter in particular have come to exercise immense influence over India-US relations and hence Indian foreign policy. This influence is completely out of proportion to the numerical strength of the US-based NRI population and its non-entitlement to voting rights in Indian elections. The triumph of NRI lobbying on behalf of the nuclear deal in the corridors of power in Washington DC represents political muscle of the sort that the humble Indian voter might view as an obscenity, namely the prevalence of NRI financial clout and diaspora "nationalism" over the roti, kapada aur makan (bread, clothing and shelter) based priorities of the impoverished masses ranging from the poorest of the poor–slum dwellers, pavement dwellers, child laborers, rag pickers and others who are familiar with hunger and malnutrition–to the not so poor who may be somewhat less familiar with deprivation.
In the name of alleviating India’s crying energy deficit, Indian and NRI elites have marketed and sold the nuclear deal. In vain have sober analysts demonstrated that nuclear energy will meet merely eight percent of India’s energy needs in even the best case projections of enhanced power generation from nuclear sources. The voices of sanity have been drowned by the cacophony on behalf of nuclear energy. The invaluable catch phrase national interest has been wielded to devastating effect by the nuclear deal fanatics and proponents. Taking their cue from such places as the NRI owned mansions of Long Island and other enclaves of privilege, from the Indian embassy in Washington DC to the government offices of New Delhi (Prime Minister’s Office, External Affairs Ministry etc) they are chanting the same slogan–Jai (victory) nuclear deal, Jai nuclear energy, George Bush Zindabad (long life). The noise is truly deafening. Because of the spectacular success of the propaganda on the nuclear deal in creating disinformation and concealing the modest benefits to be realized by expanding power generation from nuclear sources, some of these individuals may actually believe that Indian interests are being advanced by clinching the nuclear deal.
Amid much that is murky there is no question that the political crisis of July 2008 was precipitated by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh whose stubborn insistence on keeping his commitment to the US President led to his breaking faith with his Communist coalition allies. The Yuvaraj or crown prince (who by the way has said that he finds this title insulting) has merely joined the chorus and cannot be said to be guilty of being a prime mover. Still it is well that the diligent TOI reporter, Alok Tiwari, who visited Kalawati in the wake of her being spoken of in the Lok Sabha made a point of injecting some sanity into the situation by bringing out the fact that the principal need of the Kalawatis of the nation was food rather than nuclear energy. Her home lacked an electric connection because its installation was beyond her means. Directly taking issue with Rahul Gandhi, Alok Tiwari observed that Kalawati was unlikely to benefit even if India were to produce more electricity. Among India’s English language daily newspapers, the TOI has taken the lead in unabashed promotion of the nuclear deal via editorials and opinion articles by strategic thinkers. Thank goodness that the corporate-friendly TOI at least retained a journalist who was willing to challenge official dogma.
One may add that, propaganda to the contrary notwithstanding, Kalawati would be ill-advised if she were to wait with bated breath for the promised nuclear energy. Despite the obscene haste with which the deal is being pursued, supplies of foreign uranium are not expected to arrive on the day following the approval of the 123 agreement by the US Congress. It’s also necessary to allow for the fact that years will pass before the shiny new nuclear reactors start churning out the much sought after nuclear energy, that tantalizing object of desire for home-grown and NRI elites.