Saturday, August 08, 2009
The Russians also deserve our thanks
Pity the poor Russians. They have not been given any thanks for helping us build our nuclear propelled submarine. The media, out of ignorance or jingoist pride ignored them, the Department of Atomic Energy and Defence Research and Development Organisation officials are still waxing pompously about their respective “achievements”, shamelessly stealing credit for designing not just the sub, but its reactor and the Sagarika submarine launched missile as well. The Indian Navy, in tune with the motto of Silent Service, has stayed silent.
Two weeks ago, when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited India, the media fell over itself in trying to outdo each other. There were affirmations and promises galore on how our “strategic” relationship will flourish. But the core outcomes were a technology safeguards agreement and the end-user monitoring agreement, whose essential purpose was to lay down conditions on which the US would sell us defence and aerospace materials and equipment.
The Russians also have conditionalities, but most relate to intellectual property rights, not what use India will put to a piece of equipment. Considering we are talking about weapons or instruments of war, isn’t it somewhat peculiar that there is need to prove you are using it in a “legitimate” fashion? Let us get a sense of proportion here.
No other country, most certainly not the United States, would sell us an aircraft carrier. As for helping us design a boomer, that would be simply unthinkable. But the Russians have done both. And not only have they not got any thanks for it, the Comptroller & Auditor General has jumped on them for overcharging India for the refit of a disused aircraft carrier, Gorshkov. In our righteous indignation we fail to see that we are dealing with a seller’s market here.
The Gorshkov facts are somewhat complex. The large carrier, commissioned in 1987, was damaged by fire and lay in the shipyard for years before India decided to acquire it in 1996. The best of inspections — and there were several — failed to gauge the level of refurbishment needed. Indeed, when the Russians reached the engines, which were expected to be in good conditions, they found two of the six needed to be replaced and four were in need of considerable repair. They did the needful without presenting a bill.
As for the Arihant, without Russian designs, drawings, technical assistance for the hull and the nuclear reactor, we would not have been able to build the ATV.
Srikumar Banerjee, Director Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, told newsmen at Kalpakkam on Sunday that “we have used the Russians as consultants” though he insisted that “everything is totally indigenous.” He is understating the truth by several magnitudes, and don’t let the DAE tell you that the NPT or the Nuclear Suppliers Group occasions the subterfuge. A loophole in the NPT permits marine reactor export, and as for the NSG, we have applied the “grandfather” clause since the Russians have been helping us on the reactor from the 1980s, before they became members of the NSG.
That the US does not provide its cutting edge technology to everyone and anyone is understandable, as is the fact that it puts conditions on its use. Accepting conditions to import such technology would be a necessary evil. What is inexplicable is that India is being forced to accept conditionalities for importing equipment — some of it dated — that the Americans are desperate to sell.
We accepted conditionalities on a 36-year old amphibious transport ship USS Trenton (now INS Jalashwa) which restricts us from deploying the ship in offensive operations. Why we have a ship in our naval fleet that cannot be used for offensive operations is not clear.
The Trenton conditions became known through the C&AG which had occasion to examine and criticise this purchase in 2006. What could the conditions be were India to agree to buy American-made aircraft —the F-16 or the FA-18 — to meet its needs for as many as 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft? Could we be denied the right to use them against Pakistan? General conditions such that you can only use them for “legitimate self-defence” are always open to interpretation.
The issue is not that the Americans are bad and Russians are good. But that India needs to carefully balance its relationships keeping its self-interest at the fore. It also needs to clearly understand that when it comes to strategic programmes, the US and India are simply not on the same page.
The US may have agreed to a nuclear deal as part of their grand strategy. But it was also an acknowledgment that the forty year old non-proliferation treaty was not working. It was punishing countries like India, whose non-proliferation record is excellent, and benefiting China whose is simply abominable, and was also being used by signatories like Iran and North Korea to camouflage their nuclear weapons programmes.
Russia has been India’s tried and tested associate — let’s not use the cliched “friend.” This relationship has been forged in the crucible of regional politics and is based on enlightened self- interest. USSR/Russia backed India on Jammu & Kashmir and still does, and has backed almost every regional initiative India has undertaken, including the liberation of Bangladesh.
Self-interest persuaded the two to stand by the Northern Alliance against the Taliban in the dark days of the mid-1990s. It was fickle Uncle Sam, in its temporary self-interest, which created the mujahideen in the 1980s, and is now fighting them and wants the world to do the same. It is entirely possible that come 2011, the US declares victory and pulls out of Afghanistan leaving us high and dry.
India and Russia were united, too, in understanding the Chinese threat. For the US, this is a matter of the moment. Sometimes Beijing is up on a pedestal where it can do no wrong, even when it gives away nuclear weapons designs. At other times it is an adversary that Washington does not know how to handle.
As the world’s only real superpower, the US has the luxury of acting on whim, and it does. But it also drags its “friends” and allies into the bar when it goes on a bender, as it did with the mujahideen in the 1980s, and more recently in Iraq. Its action in knocking out the Taliban in 2001, and then taking the dangerous detour to Iraq, have only strengthened the Taliban and expanded their influence into Pakistan.
In some measure this is a result of the American political process which, over the years, has displayed a dangerous level of partisanship. Political attitudes between the right and the left have hardened and there seems to be little meeting ground between them. Some of this ideological conflict is spilling over into world affairs with negative consequences.
Despite the end of the Cold War, the world has remained a dangerous place. Though buffeted by its backwash, India has managed to play a role as a major stabilising force in the South Asian region. The record will show that Russia has been a helpful factor; this is not just today, when it has retreated from its Cold War frontline positions. The US has made significant efforts to befriend India, but there is considerable historical baggage and mistrust between us that we must first overcome.
The Indian grand strategy has to be to get extra-regional powers to see things our way, rather than the other way around. Unfortunately, New Delhi seems to be determined to play second fiddle to Washington DC.
Perhaps we are dazzled by the American attention. But even so, let’s not forget the Russians, who have, by loyally tailing us in the region, enhanced our security and provided us the much needed room for maneuver.
This article appeared in Mail Today August 6, 2009