THE END game has gone on for so long, that one would be tempted to say that it has become a game of its own. That there is still some life in the Indo- US nuclear deal was apparent by the buzz created last week, when the Samajwadi party cited former President A. P. J. Abdul Kalam’s advocacy of the deal, to say they were willing to reconsider their opposition to it. Given its single- issue approach to politics, which does not include an automatic distaste for things American, the change signifies little for the party, but it has larger implications for national politics.
Among other things, it weakens the CPI( M) General Secretary Prakash Karat’s claim — untested on the floor of the house — that the majority of the Parliament is against the deal. With 36 seats in the present house, the SP has nearly as many members of parliament as the CPI( M) itself. The Left is now reported to be readying to have yet another internal discussion on the deal. The Samajwadi shift could be used by them to modify their senseless blockade, though this is unlikely. The UPA- Left coordination committee meeting on May 28 could well be the final meeting on the deal. Optimists, and I am one of naïve lot, believe that the deal will still go through the Indian political hurdles. But that will only be the first of three endgames. The next will be with the International Atomic Energy Agency whose board of governors will meet on June 2. While India has a draft agreement with the IAEA in its pocket, that does not mean that the board of governors will automatically accept it. And then comes the clean exemption from the Nuclear Suppliers Group cartel on its rule against civil nuclear trade with a country that has not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. This will not be a best of three outcome: India must win all three games to get the nuclear deal through. While we have the secretary general of the IAEA Mohammed El Baradei in our corner in the world nuclear body, as per agreement the United States must push our case in the NSG. The problem is that with the Bush Administration in its lameduck phase, countries which may have otherwise gone along with the US in the NSG could now become a problem. There is a blithe assumption in some quarters in the country that IAEA and NSG approval will be a cakewalk. But we could be in for a rude shock. In the case of the IAEA, we already have a draft agreement, but when we go to the NSG we may find that in addition to the conditions the US has made in the 123 Agreement, we are asked to make commitments to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the proposed Fissile Material Cut off agreement being negotiated in Geneva.
But it is not the endgame alone that should interests us, but the game itself. Given his background as an arch- nationalist, Kalam only told us half the truth when he said that the country needed to import natural uranium to keep its nuclear power programme going. “ Our uranium reserves are limited. We will need a certain amount of uranium to attain the next stage in the fuel cycle producing energy on thorium which is available in abundance in India,” he said. Atomic Energy chief Anil Kakodkar made the same point at the same meeting at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai. He pointed out that India was no longer “ technology limited” but “ raw material limited.” This is something of an understatement. India may boast of its small nuclear power station expertise, but the fact of the matter is that we have been stunted by the embargoes on us. As for the fast breeder, it offers us great promise of energy security, but there are still major technological challenges that must be overcome. The reality is that India also needs to be part of the world technology mainstream. This is important not only because it fertilizes your own endeavours, but because an open market is a source of cheaper and better components and technology. And surely if our fast breeder is a success, we would like to market the technology around the world. But that will not be possible as long as there are NSG restrictions on our civil nuclear trade. Let us also be humble and accept that we are unlikely to have some unique technology that will compel the NSG to come to terms with us. In the long debate over the desirability or otherwise of the deal, one fact that has been spun around is that nuclear power will be able to fulfil only a small fraction of our total demand, say 12 per cent by 2030. ( It is 3 per cent now) The point is that the 12 per cent could make the difference between a high and a low economic growth rate. When shortage occurs, say in Delhi currently, it is not the total power output that matters, but the shortage which could be of the order of 5- 10 per cent.
So the marginal unavailability will be more important than the percentage it represents. In addition, it will also come as clean energy. Already there is considerable pressure on India and China to undertake mandatory emission controls in the post- Kyoto climate control treaty. By now it should be clear from the statements of people like former National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra that the Indo- US nuclear deal will have no negative impact on India’s nuclear weapons programme. How could it ? Western critics are not wrong when they say that by being permitted to import natural uranium for civil nuclear power, will enable India to use its limited resources for military purposes. As for nuclear tests, no agreement in the world would permit India the right to conduct them, and, frankly, in such matters relating to national security interests, you do not go around seeking permission from anyone.
The problem with a section of domestic opinion is that they think that India is somehow entitled to have the nuclear trade embargo lifted. But we are not dealing with a legal regime alone, but also a cartel like the NSG which functions on the plane of international politics. Many of its members have not quite gotten over India’s successful defiance of the non- proliferation order and building nuclear weapons. There are, after all, 184 countries who have decided to accept what Indians feel is a second class status, and signed the NPT as non- nuclear weapon states. These are also the countries that form the bulk of the 45- nation NSG. They do not take too kindly to India’s pretensions. Many resent what they see as New Delhi’s tactic of using American clout to crash into the club. Some are rich and not particularly amenable to US pressure anyway. So, India’s “ entitlement mode” negotiation may not have much traction with the NSG. Instead, we may need to more substantially address the non- proliferation sentiment by accepting some kind of commitment to the CTBT and the FMCT. In the end, politics, rather than entitlement, is what will determine the outcome.
This article first appeared in Mail Today May 14, 2008