Sound and Fury – the 123 Agreement

I’m in India right now and over the weekend have been on a forced diet of the news channels. Top of the news menu is the possible fall of the government over the 123 Agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation between India and the US.

The coverage since yesterday on NDTV seems more like a soap opera than anything else. Like a soap opera it is low on content, high on drama but the acting is terrible. At the end of an hour long program in which many pols from both CPI(M) and Congress were interviewed, I was no more enlightened about the issues as I was before the program. (thank god for Wikipedia!). To the credit of the NDTV anchor, he tried his best to get his guests to talk about the issues, but it was clearly not a top priority for them. They preferred to refer to documents and dates without talking about what was in them. Make bombastic statements about the sovereignty of India being compromised or protected. And of course throw accusations at the other party about their motivations.

A few weeks back I had written about the challenges that leaders face in communicating complex economic issues. This is a living example of that if there ever was one. The current issue is an economic one (energy) as well as being related to defence and foreign relations. And it is a complex one. The voter doesn’t understand the issues and can’t be expected to have a position. In such a situation, you have two options, if you are the leader of the government:

– Make nice with the opposition and alliance partners and see it through Parliament.

– Explain it to the voters.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did neither. A few days back it seems, frustrated by the foot-dragging by the Communists, he made a statement that this was the best deal that  could have been negotiated with the US under the circumstances, and so this was a “take it or leave it.” Who knows what he meant by it, but I can see it not going down well with Prakash Karat and the other fossils in the politburo.

As far as explaining it to the people, here is his statement on August 13, excerpted by Business Standard. I quote from the first two paragraphs:


An elaborate multi-layered consultation process has been included with regard to any future events that may be cited as a reason by either party to seek cessation of cooperation or termination of the (123) agreement. Both parties have agreed to take a number of factors into account in their consultations so that the scope for precipitate or unilateral action is reduced.
Cessation of cooperation can be sought by the US only if it is prepared to take the extreme step of termination of the agreement. India’s right to take “corrective measures” will be maintained even after the termination of the agreement.


Now, aren’t those the two most arresting opening lines you ever saw! Which voter will not completely support Mr. Singh after reading that!

It is a sad reflection on how our democracy functions 60 years after independence, if

– Leaders think it a waste of time to explain major legislation to the voters.

– The opposition opposes everything that the government does regardless of merit or indeed their own position on it.

– A party wedded to an ideology that died decades ago can hold back progress in a country that so desperately needs change.


  1. monideepa says:

    “Like a soap opera it is low on content, high on drama but the acting is terrible.” Agree with your view on TV newsreporting in India. Too many channels vying to make news as much of a ‘tamasha’ as possible to draw in the front bench, pakora munching-while-they watch-the world-go up-in-flames crowd.

    There is also some insensitivity in the way disasters and their victims are handled.

    About politicians, what can I say excpet that they are our chosen leaders. Perhaps we deserve what we get.


  2. This post has given me more insights than what a TV channel can offer in an hour. (That’s the reason I don’t have cable at home!) Other than poor content, what bothered me was content-to-ads ratio. If you manage to pick one or two good programs per channel (assuming you managed to filter “breaking news” like ‘someone-kissed-someone’), content gets served during breaks and you have ads for rest of time. Unless you have an iTunes-like, on-demand aggregator, it takes too much time for us to organize ourselves without getting lost in channels and ads.

    With sketchy information about 123 agreement and after pouring through some interviews with nuclear scientists, I think, as you rightly mentioned, the real issue is about educating the politicians and ‘aam junta’ about the agreement. Mr.Singh could not have gotten another issue of such national importance to face the people and make a case in its favor. He had just lost another opportunity to educate India from atop the Red Fort. We have good reasons to be disappointed with the country’s leadership.


  3. Siddharth says:

    Or Mr. Singh realizes that educating from the Red Fort is futile. It was a sensitive issue and our political lot would have surely extracted undue mileage from his well intentioned words. The business of education is also the media’s, who we know is a reflection of the country’s appetite. So, we all are getting what we really are. If there is a market for no-nonsense news, sooner or later, some channel will fill the gap. e.g. Tehelka fed a segment of particular market demand, Stardust has been feeding another for bored housewives, SunTV yet another, Outlook started as being different from India Today — and i don’t know how different it really is today. Another thing to note today is that media today is unlimited – this blog site is a small example.


  4. krishna says:

    Somehow the word `nuclear’ evokes the image of a `bomb’ to most politicians –especially the Left that feels India is mortgaging its bomb making rights to US under 123 – and little else. They need to be explained on energy security that 123 agreement seeks to provide by a significant easing of the uranium shortage in the country; This will ensure that current plants of the Department of Atomic Energy that are placed under safeguards will be able to operate without any shortfalls in fuel supply leading to an improvement in their plant load factors.

    A second, slightly longer term, benefit is that new imported plants can be set up by Indian companies in partnership with foreign companies. These plants can be much larger, ranging in size from 1,000 MWe to 1,600 MWe. Since nuclear plants enjoy significant economies of scale, larger plants will be able to produce power much more cheaply than smaller plants and make them more competitive with electricity produced from coal or natural gas. In a power starved country like ours, it’s not much different from oxygen.

    News Channels resemble soaps since they are not assured of a juicy TRP even if they manage to get groups of eminent scientists, lawyers, journos and commentators to come together on air. Our TV viewers, like elsewhere in the world, are happy with reality shows and the like… Who cares for insightful documentaries or news feeds?

    It also brings new meaning to A.J. Liebling’s maxim that freedom of the press belongs to those who own one. So it’s wheels within wheels….


  5. I couldn’t agree more with you about effective communication. I very strongly feel that the root of all our problems especially in large organizations is that people spend very little time explaining why things are done the way they are. As you say, this is a complex deal that the layman cannot understand and so each of us have our own take on it (you can read my opinion – if interested – here: I think one of the main reasons why we’re always waiting in the wings for center stage is because India’s tremendous talent has no unifying language that will articulate our wealth to the world. Our suppressed potential is our greatest tragedy.


  6. Sandeep Srivastava says:

    The job of a political leader is to take an issue of National/Internation concern , no matter how complex and gather mass momentum for it by taking the issue in public forums etc. e.g. the BJP government build up momentum for Kargil war etc. But the current government is devoid of any mass leaders and totaly lacks the ability to do so.


  7. Harish says:

    Couldn’t agree more with you when you mentioned about the communication levels of problems or even interests the politicians in india have.

    Mr. PM’s speech was expected to answer questions raised or atleast cool down the opposition. But instead he chose to go it the hard way like saying we meddled so much and got this, you take it or leave it. obvious enough all opposition and CPI(M) are making sure he has more bad worrying days ahead of him on this issue because he said that phrase which was so unfortunate for a leader.

    What people get is bad representation of them at the world stage. you call them, layout a plan, send them saying everything is fine, and later fight inside and cancel it and live happy like nothing happened.

    Some years back they interviewed people responsible for the bofors deal (non-indians side of it i mean). one of the interviews was of the director of the arms company that sold india the bofors.

    i remember he said something like this, “india has paid us for the guns, the technology, and training on setting up and manufacturing more of it themselves.. but so far only the guns were transacted. the rest they haven’t bothered to get from us though they paid for it.. it is because of all the issues with the deal.”

    politicians though always crib that “5 years is too less to do anything and it goes off in ensuring we get reelected for the next 5”, they seem to internally take it as a convenience to get away with things.

    but, i have seen that the scene is same even in developed countries like the US.


  8. Diwakar Muthu says:

    Basab, I would like to add to what you have said. Infact there has been joint committee sessions within the UPA and they had indeed appraised the Left of the happenings with respect to the Nuclear deal…. But rather than taking potshot at our respected PM, why not blame the left for not asking questions at the appropriate time when the negotiations were going along…

    Perhaps the media also blew and burst it before it became operational and the Indian media needs to have a consensus on such critical issues and what to broadcast and what not to broadcast. Infact, I was watching one such program with 2 spokesperson of either parties and they were just vindicating their stand rather can discussing the point and eventually it was big political gimmick to gather votes.

    Your observation of the Left being an outdated party is right. It might be true that they are the only party that diligently audits their accounts, perhaps they can have a frequent intellectual audit of their thought processes as well. For them it is always about pensions, gratuity, strike and at times looking at the China and Pak story from a strategic view piont.

    How does the US and other Western countries tackle such problems. Simple keep the press out of the equation. In India it is at the forefront of it with different opinions and thoughts


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