As India’s parliament debates whether or not to approve the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement today, more than the fate of the deal itself is at stake. The fate of India’s government, a coalition of multiple political parties headed by the Congress Party, and the political future of the country hangs in the balance. One thing is not in doubt: India may well be the most openly corrupt democracy in the world.
If the parliament votes the deal down, India’s Congress-led coalition government will fall having already lost the support of its left-wing coalition partners who walked out on the government over a deal they stridently oppose. Elections will then be scheduled for November, six months ahead of schedule. This would broach the possibility of a return of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a right-wing party staunchly supportive of a strong relationship with the United States despite their formal opposition to the deal.
Alternately, an emerging coalition between the defecting left parties and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) lead by Mayawati Kumari could win early national elections. The BSP has proven itself a strong political force after winning a strong majority in state elections in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most popular state. A party with a strong base among India’s dalits or untouchable caste, of which Mayawati herself is a member, the BSP has reached out and consolidated support across caste and religious lines. A government formed by the BSP and India’s left parties would certainly not be as friendly to the U.S. strategic and business interests as the current government or a BJP government.
With its very survival at stake, not to mention what it views as India’s best shot at achieving “great power” status, and a mother lode of contracts worth up to as much as $150 billion according to the U.S. India Business Council, Congress is pulling out all the stops. The frantic horse trading going down in India’s capital over the past 24 hours would put the most enthusiastic lobbyist in Washington to shame. The going price of a “yes” vote by wavering MPs on the deal is put at $6 million. Ministerships, naming rights for airports, even highly ranked government jobs promised for relatives are all on the table. Sonia Gandhi, the power person behind the ruling Congress Party, is even reported to have forgiven a former cabinet minister convicted of murder in exchange for his pledging the four votes he controls. While the head of one political party, the Telangana Rastra Samithi, is holding out for no less than the creation of a new state, to be named Telangana, in exchange for his vote.
Even the ongoing feud between India’s billionaire brothers, Mukesh and Anil Ambani, is reported to have spilled over onto the fate of the deal, with one supporting the Congress government and one opposing it. God knows how much cash these two, each with fortunes in excess of $40 billion, are injecting into the orgy.
If the Congress Party wins a yes vote tomorrow on the U.S. India nuclear deal, it will be because it was able to pay the most money and promise the most goodies to the most members of parliament. At this moment, on the eve of the vote, it appears confident of securing in excess of the 272 votes it needs. A victory for democracy, surely.
Mira Kamdar is a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute and the author of Planet India: The Turbulent Rise of the Largest Democracy and the Future of Our World (Scribner, 2008).