Today, the Lok Sabha will begin the long-anticipated debate on the Indo-US nuclear deal. Expect more sound than light, and a lot of smoke. The debate will be strictly partisan, and you will be none the wiser. This is a pity considering the vital national importance of the subject. Fortunately, from the outset, there has been nothing hidden about the deal. Officials on both sides have leaked details to the media, the legislative processes have been quite open, and the outcome— India’s separation plan, the Hyde Act and the 123 Agreement are available for anyone to read and interpret. Perhaps because of the information overload, and some of it is technical-- both in the legislative and scientific sense—there is a lot of confusion surrounding the deal.
The deal is not exclusively about energy, neither is it about India and the United States.
But it is about India’s relationship with the entire developed world, shaped as they are to a considerable extent by the embargoes placed on India’s nuclear and space programmes because we are not signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. All the action till now in New Delhi, Washington and Vienna will not operationalise the deal. Only the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group’s clean exemption on its rule barring trade with countries that have not signed the NPT will do so. In that sense the US is merely the chowkidar to the gates of the NSG, the cartel of nations with significant nuclear technology and materials.
You may ask why US ? The reason can be answered by another question: Why is US hosting the Annapolis Conference on Palestine, or why is the US concerned about North Korea’s nuclear reactor? The US is seen by its contemporaries-- and they are that since it has no real rivals-- as the world’s foremost power on whom rests a disproportionate responsibility to maintain the world order. George Bush may have single-handedly diminished US capital by his wanton ways, but the US still remains the default power on the world’s problem issues. Dealing with India’s nuclear status is one such issue and all NSG countries have decided that the US will be the nodal country on the subject.
With its moribund nuclear industry and plethora of rules, the US is unlikely to be the main commercial gainer from the nuclear deal. The first four reactors after the NSG go-ahead are likely to be Russian because the Koodankulam site has the necessary clearances for them and the reactor type has been certified by Indian regulators. The next would probably be a French reactor. As the chowkidar, the US may be entitled to a tip, 10 to 15 per cent, which could be the trade in components, computers and control systems it may export.
American gains will be political, and they are not inconsiderable. The deal is vital for the US goal of incorporating India in a global security architecture in the coming decades.
“Aha !” you may say, if you believe in conspiracy theories. “We told you so.” But that aim is less sinister than it sounds. First, there is nothing the US can do today to compel us to do anything against our own interests. Second, while India and the US both have national interests that may, on occasion, clash, on the whole they are much more congruent today than ever. To reject a policy option because we have matching interests would be perverse.
India and the US share common interests with China, Japan, EU and Russia and almost everyone, for a secure and stable environment. Given its global presence, the US must have a special place in our calculations. It is the only power that has the capability of intervening, militarily or diplomatically in countries of vital importance for us—Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and, to an extent, even China. Good relations with the US also have a dividend in the form of better relations with its close allies, principally Japan and the European Union.
All major powers seek strategic autonomy, but India seems to be stuck with its 1970s obsession with autarky. While in the field of economic relations the idea has been thrown overboard, its its strategic avatar still holds some fascination for the Left and the RSS. In today’s globalised world, we must understand the difference between autarky and autonomy. The latter is desirable, the former self-defeating. One puts you in the league of North Korea and Cuba, the other with China and the European Union.
The striking aspect of the Left raising fears about New Delhi being subservient to Washington is that they are doing so at a time when India is the strongest it has been in 60 years—bulging foreign exchange reserves, sizzling economic growth, a vast nuclear armed military and a sophisticated industrial and intellectual infrastructure. India’s relations with its smaller neighbours are the best ever, as are those with old adversaries like China and Pakistan. The only answer for this deliberate fear-mongering is that the Left is not happy with this picture.
Coming to technical issues: There are some who claim that India will lose the right to test. Not true. In fact the US has been remarkably accommodating on this score. But by the same measure with which we have retained the right to test, the US, too, has the right to react. But this is a hypothetical proposition since the eventuality is not around the corner. There are some facile arguments about India placing its reactors under safeguards “in perpetuity” and not getting perpetual fuel guarantees. In fact the fuel guarantees are perhaps the most extensive one can find anywhere.
India tested on May 11 and 13 1998. The government’s statement after the May 13 test said we had "completed the planned series." India’s chief scientist, Dr. R. Chidambaram and the DRDO specialist K. Santhanam assured the government that there was no need for further tests. Having invited the world’s opprobrium, we could have gone on testing, but we didn’t. Most of the scientists who today claim we need more tests were not involved in the weapons programme, or had retired long before India’s nuclear weapons programme really got underway in the mid-1990s.
It is difficult to see what the BJP now wants by way of renegotiating the 123 Agreement. A document on the “evolution of India’s nuclear policy” was tabled in Parliament on May 27, 1998 noted “Subsequent to the tests Government has already stated that India will, now observe a voluntary moratorium and refrain from conducting underground nuclear test explosions. The basic obligation of the CTBT are thus met.” In the same statement it also indicated willingness to move towards “a de-jure formalization” of this declaration. The statement also expressed India’s desire to participate in the Fissile Material Cut off Treaty (FMCT). These commitments were reiterated by Prime Minister Vajpayee to the UN General Assembly on September 24, 1998:
Accordingly, after concluding this limited testing program, India announced a voluntary moratorium on further underground nuclear test explosions. We conveyed our willingness to move towards a de jure formalization of this obligation. In announcing a moratorium, India has already accepted the basic obligation of the CTBT.
The Indo-US nuclear deal has the power to change India’s relationship with the US and the rest of the developed world. The agreements that shape it are not static documents, they are subject to change and modification. As it is, an international agreement is worth the piece of paper it is written on, unless there is a commitment and interest of both or all parties to uphold it. The process of meeting reciprocal obligations will build up trust, which generate higher levels of commitment. In other words, the minor flaws gaps that remain will also be addressed. But as is the way with life-- in the fullness of time and fitness of things.