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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 40

Politics of the Nuclear Deal

Tuesday 23 September 2008, by Kamala Prasad


Even before the Civil Nuclear Agreement between India and the USA is signed, the opinion- makers and partisans have equally displayed euphoria that does not behove a mature democracy. Our partner, the USA, is free from any such display. Sober analysts are looking at the long-term implications behind the “Deal”. That should focus on political outcomes more than just apparent economic and technological benefits that can be realistically evaluated when they come to pass.

The period between the two sessions of the NSG witnessed interesting developments. There was dismay when it appeared that despite months of diplomatic running around, including that by some Ministers at the last leg, members had misgivings and almost fifty sharp questions and queries were raised. It appears now that this number equalled almost those posed by the US Congress to the Bush Administration after the reply from the State Department became public. In the intervening period between the two sessions of the NSG further hectic lobbying was mounted. The US ambassador in New Delhi, David Mulford, addressed a luncheon meeting of diplomats of the member countries of the NSG. The substance of his address, as reported in the local media, was a warning to them that their countries had not grasped the “political” future from the “Deal”. This dimension was not clearly explained in the last three years that the Deal has been hanging fire in our country. It is necessary to focus on this dimension of the Deal in the evolving global scenario.

Global Power Balance

THE post-Cold War global scenario still remains in a state of flux. A clash is seen between those visualising the current century as that belonging to Asia and the old world of which the USA is the leader. The presidency of George W. Bush has added to the worry and uncertainty. The new ideology of Western culture at risk appeared while securing the UNO intervention in Afghanistan. In the case of the Iraq intervention even that pretense was discarded and no UN cover was there. “Preventive intervention and regime change” added an element of arbitrariness in international relations. Finally, the old world undertook integration of larger Europe in the EU and expansion of the NATO to cover new countries. The NATO was involved first in Afghanistan for so-called peace keeping and elimination of the Al-Qaeda. India’s offer of joining the UN mandate for peace-keeping was just ignored. So, the old world, after adding new territory and capturing natural resources to retain its hold on power, has entered a new phase.

The century of Asia and the reality of the power- shift is getting muted articulation in some European nations. The USA considers China as a strategic competitor. However, in the economic sphere the US economy, more so the consumer economy, is so integrated that the nature of competition in the political and strategic fields is somewhat blurred. Russia has resolved its disputes with China and the two have started the “Shanghai Group”. Russia has shown by its intervention in Georgia that strategic competition is brewing. though even the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) has not endorsed the Russian invasion of Georgia. The Middle East remains a theatre of war with the USA threatening Iran off and on. India alone, as a major power in Asia, has retained its political and strategic sanity. There was a strong pressure for the country to join the USA in the Iraq misadventure but a mature Vajpayee did not succumb to the temptation. Is the USA trying to get India under its strategic umbrella? Is India prepared to follow the US bidding? If so, what will be the terms and the consequences? These are the under-currents of the political dimension that are not yet clear.

A brief recounting of events since the signing of the Bush-Manmohan Joint Declaration three years ago would give some indications. Before the Prime Minister entered into that Declaration, the country’s Defence Minister had visited the USA to sign the “Defence Framework Agreement”. There are ambiguous provisions in that Agreement that raise issues if India would be involved in the US global strategic operations and that too, like Iraq, without the UNO’s authorisation. What followed this event was the Indian votes against Iran with the USA and not following the non-aligned countries at the IAEA. In fact, many see a link also between India virtually scuttling the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline project that is experiencing very slow movement despite the NCMP placing emphasis on petroleum as the core of energy security. India is moving at a snail’s pace while China corners strategic and economic natural resources around the world. Beyond this lies the Defence Logistics Agreement which had been delayed due to Left Opposition that felt it as unnecessary in terms of India’s interests. The icing on the cake is our waste of diplomatic energy in the so-called “war against international terror” that might have complicated the domestic terror problem further.

These are the broad contours that indicate our global engagement moving the focus away from economic interests at the core of our global recognition. If so, are we so certain of our economic future that a shift of balance to political-strategic engagement is considered more important? More recently, food security had hiccups; energy security in terms of petroleum and natural gas are farther away; export of merchandise does not show dynamism and IT and remittances have helped to keep the current account in balance. But outsourcing faces some hostile territory from time to time. A few years ago, Henry Kissinger warned that growing dependence on outsourcing is a threat to US national security. The fact remains that the USA has chosen as yet a weaker but large power in Asia to keep strategic company. Can the weak retain its freedom of action in the more crucial economic sphere? The USA and EU have not been of much assistance in the Doha Round of Trade Negotiations. Is there some lesson in that? This background of how we prioritise our foreign strategic engagement has a strong bearing on the Deal.

American Deal and Indian Bargain

THE first step was the separation agreement between civil nuclear reactors and strategic reactors and as a follow-up from the Declaration. A hard bargain it was and it would involve considerable cost in building dedicated facilities to facilitate enforcement of safeguards by the IAEA. In fact there has to be a well-guarded reprocessing facility to prevent any possibility of a mix-up between the strategic and civil nuclear programmes. Will the arrangement be cost-effective?—no one has asked. But more than that, there is implicit suspicion that India may divert materials from the civilian energy to its strategic programme. This is against the Indian record in keeping adequate safeguard on nuclear establishments. Does it indicate enough trust in partnership? To me it does not. The Bush Administration moved to enabling legislation only after guarantees were obtained to its satisfaction. The US Congress was under dual pressure. On the one side there was pressure from the American nuclear trade and industry to facilitate it to get a major share in the prospective Indian energy market. In fact, American business delegations visited the country to make their estimate of the potential and possibilities. On the other hand there was pressure from the powerful anti-proliferation lobby. It took steps to lobby for circumscribing concessions to the extent possible and consistent with American business interests. The Hyde Act was the outcome. It had to be ambiguous. So, while it adhered to the Bush agenda, it put in a number of declaratory and discretionary provisions. In effect, a lot would depend on the attitude of the particular Administration when the question of operationalising concessions under the future 123 Agreement comes up. This was the political space that determines US action in complying with international obligations; in weighing a balance between multilateralism and bilateralism. Bilateralism is more pronounced in the USA. This reality may haunt India in carrying on with the Deal as well.

This is already abundantly clear. The US Congress asked the Administration fortyfive searching questions to clarify the provisions in the 123 Agreement. The State Department of the USA supplied the interpretations and the commitments made. But this was kept secret in the Congress Secretariat on request from the State Department. This document was made public on the eve of the NSG meeting for clearing the India specific waiver of its stringent rules. On two core issues of consequence following testing of any nuclear device and fuel supply it seemed to be inconsistent with the Indian understanding of the Agreement that India had approved. The IAEA Safeguards Agreement was a smooth affair but India agreed to sign an Additional Protocol and its features will be known only later. The NSG waiver brought in the emerging clash between the non-proliferation features as the USA itself had made the body believe in the features of this agreement for which approval was needed. The first meeting in August just brought in about 50 questions/queries. Despite months of our diplomats running around the world the members were not convinced to clear the waiver draft proposed by the USA. A second meeting was scheduled and another round of hectic lobbying followed. When the members met with a revised draft circulated, they were still not convinced to have a consensus. India was powerless. The US President had to personally intervene and interceded with the dissenter countries. The waiver came but with members not even clapping at the achievement, the media reported grim silence in the meeting. Why? The strong-arm diplomacy of the USA left them cold. This may have future consequences for smooth nuclear trade and fuel supply involving even smaller nations.

The final NSG resolution has still tried to strike a balance between its mandate and the waiver it allowed. The Business Standard of September 8 wrote thus editorially:

The message that comes through is of furthering the non-proliferation agenda while India sees it as getting rid of that same agenda, insofar as the nuclear denial regime is applied to it. It is hard to see how both positions or intentions can simultaneously hold.

The NSG has now passed on its resolution to the IAEA for enforcing implementation or perhaps building in the Additional Protocal which India has agreed to negotiate. The point is that the USA has openly showed who matters when it needs to sway opinion in the international nuclear control infrastructure which it has sustained so far. It has made it clear that political support of the USA is the crucial element in pursuing further nuclear ambition and India has to behave.

The US President has sent an explanatory letter to the Congress seeking ratification of the 123 Agreement. In this letter he is reported to have made it clear that guarantee of fuel supply is not a legal right but only a political commitment. Another sensitive element regarding supply of sensitive equipment and technology may perhaps be a business proposition and will again be subject to government regulations and instructions in a highly regulated US nuclear market in this area. On his part Bush has also referred to India’s voluntary moratorium and again stated that this was also not a legal restraint but a political commitment. It is hard to understand this insofar as our Foreign Minister had to make a fresh statement for the NSG to take note of and this is noted in the resolution. It is difficult to see why these statements have been made. Is this message for the international organisations involved in the whole transaction to go by American political directions? Or is this merely to suggest to the Congress to incorporate it in their final approval in a manner that the political freedom of the President is not curtailed? Either way, India will bind itself in knots in the journey through the maze of American bipartisan politics.

While the Indian Prime Minister makes a trip to Washington to thank President Bush for his efforts, he must keep in mind the political minefield for his successors. It is always easy to renegotiate an agreement in process but quite difficult to terminate one finally signed. That raises a question of international credibility where India has set and sustained very high standards. But in the country’s murky coalition politics a distressing spectacle of name-calling has already been indulged in. To every contradiction between the ambiguous language of the 123 Agreement and silence on certain provisions the government does not provide the clarification. The Congress spokesperson appears to just reiterate that the 123 Agreement overrules domestic American laws. And that, despite the USA showing in recent times how bilateralism remains a prisoner to its domestic laws and politics. To cap it all, the Agreement does not contain any arbitration provisions despite its operationalisation being dependent on India signing international agreements. So, India has voluntarily agreed to abide by the American political power-play.

Technological Outcome

IT is surprising that the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission is being exposed on the electronic channels to explain aspects of the Deal that raise controversy. One must join in sympathy for our atomic scientists who have achieved whatever they can with the constraints they face. When sanctions were invoked by the USA after Pokhran-II they were denied visas to visit the USA to attend an international conference and not one convened by that government. And yet, the treaty negotiation has been the responsibility of the Foreign Secretary and the NSA. They alone can explain what understandings were entered into and why. They alone can articulate why contradictions in the 123 Agreement and some of the interpretations given by the US Administration have already appeared. Politics is not the domain of scientists.

There is a risk emanating from this Agreement which one must guard against. Our core research scientists on the three-stage thorium technology must stay with R&D and should be provided adequate resources to complete the project as expeditiously as feasible. A lot of manpower may be needed if the government’s ambitious programme to generate power by importing machinery and fuel prove even partially realistic. This may cause manpower shortage and research wing scientists should be provided incentives to stick to the more important task of realising the dream of the independent and self-reliant thorium based energy generation programme. This can happen when they remain insulated from the political games of foreign collaboration and imports.

It is somewhat harsh to explore politics behind this Deal. But all the facts point to the Deal being in favour of the USA politically and its interpretation subject to their politics. The country has to guard against its fall-out. Our government should show greater realism in proceeding with its implementation. Politics is a game that can swing either way; it mostly favours the strong against the weak. Let the mirage of energy alone as the outcome of this Agreement give place to the comprehensive character of the undertakings the USA has disclosed in its demands and activities following it. The first official visit to the USA taking place on the morrow of the NSG approval is that of the Defence Minister. That is significant. The Bush-Manmohan Declaration was preceded by the visit of the then Defence Minister and now once again it is the present Defence Minister visiting the US. Is defence trading the higher priority in preference to a plan for expansion of nuclear energy? At least now a realistic picture of the Deal’s cost-benefit, potential and possible achievement must be presented to the nation. That is overdue.

The author, a distinguished administrator, is a former Chief Secretary of Bihar (now retired).

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