Originally Published 2016-09-20 13:04:52 Published on Sep 20, 2016
There are no free lunches in international politics. LEMOA is thus a 'fair' exchange for the US backing India on civil nuclear deal.
National discourse needed on LEMOA

The India-US LEMOA — abbreviation for 'Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement' — has triggered enough and more controversies in this country even before the proverbial ink had dried and the agreement itself is tested on the ground. It however looks as if the Modi government could have discussed it inside and/or outside Parliament, to arrive at a 'national consensus', with the medium and long-term future of the agreement in mind.

There are no free lunches in international politics. LEMOA is thus a 'fair' exchange for the US backing India on civil nuclear deal. It is anybody’s guess if and why the Manmohan Singh government sought and obtained ‘national consensus’ on the defence agreement. There was open opposition to the nuclear deal, and the Left parties withdrew support to United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-I on this score. It does not mean that the present-day government should not have had a transparent deal of the LEMOA kind.

Unlike all predecessors, the Modi leadership swears by transparency in all dealings, especially on the defence and strategic fronts. The government has promised to present LEMOA to parliament and the people of this country, post facto. If the government is convinced that LEMOA is only about logistics support and exchanges of a non-combatant kind, there is no justification for such pre-signature secrecy.

For a variety of reasons, defence and strategic affairs has remained an exclusive preserve of the executive in India. The people and parliament are often kept away from the discussions and details. Such secrecy is not often justified. Whether it’s the conduct of war, strategic cooperation and alliances or military procurements, such an approach has only failed the nation. This has only led to 'uninformed' media discourse over the past decades, where wrong conclusions are wrong — believed and acted upon. The social media era has only added to the woes.

Worse still, such details are often discussed in overseas publications and host nation’s parliament in greater or lesser detail. The US is the best example in such matters. Not only could and does the US Congress apply brakes on the executive’s initiative of the kind, it also builds into the nation’s scheme a bipartisan imperative without exception. This in turn has provided the proverbial continuity to US national affairs and international policies. India and Indians have lessons to learn on this score, and the US scheme can be the best reference point.

In a globalised village where internet rules, it’s unpardonable for 21st century India to continue with an archaic system, which may have been good in colonial times. Marking a departure from the post-Independence past in every which way — at least as far as the public imagery and expectations went — the Modi leadership could have begun well on this score, too. If LEMOA is an innocent animal, as is being made out to be, it could have been the best one to begin such a 'transparency' process in India.

The economic reforms for the first instance of the kind where there was bipartisan consensus, at least between the ruling Congress and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the national-level. The consensus was limited to concepts, not necessarily details. It got displayed again on the India-US civilian nuclear deal. As for as issues such as India’s Nuclear Suppliers Group and the larger UN Security Council membership go, the Congress is known to be taking cautious steps, at times dismissed as half-steps. The BJP-led Vajpayee government had followed suit, but the same cannot be said of the Modi leadership.

In the Indian context, 'national consensus' however cannot stop with the so-called 'Big Two.' Both have had their best times, but they too have had their worse times. Their worse times have been the ‘worst’ compared to those of some of the 'regional parties.' Rather, the emergence of regional parties in particular political environments and electoral circumstances have ensured that the 'national party' then in the Opposition was the worst-sufferer. There is no parallel to it in the US, for American strategic community and policymakers to compare and contrast with. Indians cannot overlook this reality.

A non-BJP, non-Congress government need not have been aberration in the past. It could still be an exception in the future. The 'Gujral Doctrine' thus can be revived and revised by a future government of the Third Front variety, however short-lived. In its time, the Doctrine meant a shifting of gears on the geo-strategic front, to one of neutrality in the international arena and one-sided initiatives, starting with symbolism, in the neighbourhood.

It reportedly led to the dismantling certain strategic infrastructure, which took time to repair and replace. Thus, the possibilities of the re-emergence of a Third Front government at the centre implies that the 'national consensus' at any given point in time should be real — and at the same realistic. Given its continuing credibility on a wide front, the Modi government should work, not just on its short-term interests but also the nation’s long-term concerns and their consequences.

Any national discourse on the strategic front, including — or, starting with — LEMOA should thus consider the impact of LEMOA-like agreements on India’s 'strategic independence', nurtured through decades. It’s not a personality-driven political concern, but a reality-check of the present for the nation’s good in the future. It needs to go beyond India’s security and strategic concerns that are centred on Pakistan and China, which are real-time threats, to say the least. But in the larger context and time-frame, it also needs to go beyond the two adversarial neighbours, jointly and otherwise. The sudden end of the Cold War caught India unawares, as it did to most other nations. It also coincided with the inevitable need for India opening up its economy and markets. This also gave the nation’s post-Cold War foreign and strategic policies a western tilt first. The US as the sole 'super-power' came at the centre. The noticeable emergence of China alongside and the identification of Pakistan as the 'epicentre' of global terrorism did not help matters.

The loss of the Soviet Union as a dependable ally and friend on the international arena was compounded by the Yeltsin era decisions like delaying and then denying India the cryogenic engines did not help matters. For India, doing business with the US directly made greater sense. The 'East Asian fiscal crisis' of the times and also the inherent inability of the EU to emerge on its own and in good time meant that nations like India could not count on a non-American power to identify with, in the interregnum.

Today, it’s a different ball-game, or so it seems. India’s security and strategic suspicions are centred only on China and Pakistan in the region. But for the US and its western, NATO allies in Europe, Russia still remains a concern. More recent news reports of plans for India-US military war-games on the one hand, and Sino-Russian military exercises in the South China Sea are ominous signs that India cannot overlook or ignore.

LEMOA, its purported possibilities and threats for India’s adversarial neighbours need to be read into the emerging scheme and situations. The question is if by moving closer into the ‘American sphere influence’ in the region, India is making avoidable enemies of depending friends like Russia, without need and justification. The sub-text is if India is unwittingly walking into a new-generation 'cold war', where strategic initiatives do not rest with it any more. The reverse used to be the case during the ‘Cold War’ era. Such initiatives had included 'strategic independence' and 'strategic silence', as well.

Neighbourhood adversities notwithstanding, LEMOA may be a one-sided affair, as India cannot be expected to require such facilities in the US territorial neighbourhood in the foreseeable future. In comparison, the US is already the ‘elephant in the room’ as far as India’s neighbourhood and the immediate Indian Ocean waters are concerned. Afghanistan is a ‘buffer’ that the Soviet Union, Osama bin-Laden and the US may have created in the region in their turns, for their own reasons and ends. It has not made things easier for India.

The US has the Diego Garcia base not far away from the Indian shores. It also has LEMOA-like ACSA (Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement) pacts with other nations in the region, including Sri Lanka and Maldives. In the case of Maldives, the US failed to get the ACSA (President Nasheed, 2008-12) upgraded into SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) during the tenure of President Waheed (2012-13).

All of it together means that the US too does not require a LEMOA with India just now, if it’s as innocent as is being projected -- unless it signals something more to its own global ‘adversaries’, be it China in Asia and Russia in Europe. In context, India and Indians should recall and remember that the US had rejected the Vajpayee government’s unilateral offer of more than LEMOA-kind facilities for targeting Osama & co in Afghanistan, soon after 9/11.

The US chose Pakistan, instead as the ‘frontline nation’ at the time. A decade and more later, India continues to pay for American intransigence in terms of non-ISI brand of terrorism nearer home. Now, a decade and more later, it would flow that LEMOA could serve greater American purposes in sum and substance than ever address India’s concerns — that too after provoking India’s traditional adversaries and possibly rendering past friends suspect India, if not turn them too into adversaries.

There is hence the more imminent need for the government to initiative a national discourse on India’s strategic concerns and options, and try evolve a national consensus in the matter. The LEMOA is not an end in itself in this discourse. It could provide the peg for initiating such a debate, which was missed at the height of the Indo-US nuclear deal, maybe because it was also characterised as 'civil' — yet, with strategic components, controls and checks incorporated into document than is acknowledged by and in India.

This commentary originally appeared in South Asia Monitor.

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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