The Indo-US nuclear deal comprises of two segments—the technical and the political. Linking the two is a complex web of agreements with implicit and explicit conditions and statements. It is politics that has enabled the technical—because the US wants to befriend India, it has taken the decision to take the lead to lift the embargo on civil nuclear trade that has been imposed on India by the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
Contrary to some views, the technical is not unimportant. Government figures show that the demand for electricity would increase ten-fold by 2050. After taking into account all available generation options, the country would still be left with a power shortage of 400 giga watts (one giga watt is equal to one billion watts). Importing uranium fuel and reactors will help ease this shortage.
Q. Is there a shortage of natural uranium in the country ?
A. According to a news report, speaking in Hyderabad on June 8, Anil Kakodkar, Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission observed that there was a huge shortage in the supply of uranium, although the country was on the road to increasing production. Owing to this shortage, the National Power Corporation of India Limited operated at only 50 per cent capacity utilisation. The government agreed to sanction four more units of 700 MW each to NPCIL but they would be constructed only after fuel linkages were established.
Q. What is this latest revelation in the US ?
A. The State Department has, in a letter to a US Congressman said that under Article XIV of the Indo-US 123 Agreement, the US “has the right to cease all nuclear cooperation with India immediately.” And that the fuel supply assurances demanded by New Delhi "are not, however, meant to insulate India against the consequences of a nuclear explosive test or a violation of nonproliferation commitments."
Q. Didn’t the PM say last August in Parliament that “ The agreement does not in any way affect India's right to undertake future nuclear tests, if it is necessary."
A. Yes, he did. But note the wording of the US letter, it says that the US has the right to cease cooperation, it does not say that India does not have the right to test.
Q. Are Indian officials right when they claim that the July 18, 2005 statement, the 123 Agreement or the IAEA safeguards agreement do not explicitly ban further nuclear tests by India ?
A. Yes they are. But there is a very clear implicit condition-- should India resume nuclear testing again, it will have to pay the price.
Q. How are these conditions implicit ?
A. The Hyde Act has waived the US ban on civil nuclear trade between the US and countries like India which have not signed the NPT, and yet conducted nuclear tests. But this waiver is retroactive going back from July 18, 2005 and covers our tests of 1998 and 1974. Any new test will lead to a termination of the waiver and compel the US to terminate the 123 Agreement.
Q. What is India’s view of the Hyde Act?
A. India says this is a legislation that binds the US Administration, not India. India is bound by the bilateral 123 Agreement that was worked out last year.In international law, an international agreement trumps domestic legislation. Were it not so, countries would undermine international commitments by passing domestic legislation. Actually the US did this to India in the case of Tarapur, and that is why India has gone out of its way to seek assurances of fuel supply from the US.
Q. So was the PM bluffing us when he said we had the right to test ?
A. Not quite, he was correct in the statement, but he did not lay it all out by saying “ My fellow countrymen, we have the right to conduct further nuclear tests, but the Indo-US nuclear cooperation agreement could be jeopardized in case we did so.”
Q. Why do you say only “jeopardized”, and not that it would be terminated ?
A. Because there is some clever drafting that provides a loophole of sorts which says that before the agreement is terminated, both sides will consider the circumstances and consult on why the party is seeking a termination. Though either of the parties may still terminate the agreement if they are not satisfied, they have agreed “to consider carefully the circumstances that may lead to termination… [and] take into account whether the circumstances that may lead to termination or cessation resulted from a party’s serious concern about a changed security environment or as a response to similar actions by other States which could impact national security.”
Q. Is the BJP making too much of the testing issue ?
A. It is, because Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee told the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September 1998 “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.”
In other words, India was ready to forgo any further nuclear tests.
Q. Does the US have an agenda in pushing the nuclear deal?
A. Of course it does. As they say, there is no free lunch. But that’s not quite the same thing as accepting that India will slavishly serve that agenda. What it will do is to utilize the opportunity to move its own agenda forward.
India has its own agenda and sees in the present global conjuncture an opportunity to strengthen its own position relative to the major powers.
In fact, being stronger than it has ever been, both economically and militarily (India is a nuke power, remember ?) it is in a far better position to resist unseemly pressure on issues. On the other hand, there is no reason why we should not cooperate with the US and other world powers, if there is a mutuality of interests. Sitting out the dance as a wall-flower is certainly not a good option for India.
Q. So why have the two countries taken such a round-about way of dealing with the issue ?
A. We come back to politics. For four years, the Congress formed a coalition with the Left and so did not want to spell out the price India would have to pay for violating the agreement. At the same time, it had to deal with the BJP which muscularly asserted India’s right to test.
At the same time, in the US, the Administration had to walk the fine line of satisfying existing US law in relation to countries like India, Pakistan and Israel, who are outlaws of the world nuclear system because they have not signed the NPT and possess nuclear weapons.
They had, in the words of Nick Burns, the former US official who negotiated the 123 Agreement, to “square the circle.” As you know squaring the circle is not really possible, you have to create an illusion of sorts to achieve that feat.