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Mainstream, Vol XLV No 44

Nuclear Deal and Our Nuclear Programme

Monday 22 October 2007, by Bharat Karnad


[(This article was published before the latest development of the Congress leadership deciding to delay operationalisation of the Indo-US nuclear deal so as to avert early elections. It is being reproduced as its contents are of immense value even today. —Editor

Mrs Sonia Gandhi was uncharacteristically aggressive at a rally in Haryana in branding those opposed to the nuclear civil cooperation deal with the United States as ’’enemies of development and enemies of peace’’. Until a few months back the Congress party President had wisely stayed in the background, letting a political lightweight and expendable Prime Minister face the music for an ill-thought-out initiative that imperilled India’s nuclear security and foreign policy freedom. She thus reserved the option of discarding it along with Dr Manmohan Singh, should the deal sour or the political costs rise radically. That calculus has apparently changed. Mrs Sonia Gandhi now either believes that she and her party can emerge stronger in the wake of this fiasco and win a decisive popular mandate, among other things, on the basis of a deal officially trumpeted as the solution for the persistent energy shortages facing the country, or she thinks that as captain of a ship that has struck an iceberg and is sinking fast, she is honour-bound to go down with it.

This death wish of the Congress party leadership is obviously hard to explain in rational terms. Especially because the nuclear deal is not only marginal to the country’s energy needs, it also fatally undermines Homi Bhabha’s three-stage plan based on natural uranium reactors, plutonium breeders, and thorium utilisation that will guarantee long term energy security and independence. Worse, it shuts down the weapons R&D capabilities by diverting the monies from both of these streams of technology development to the purchase of enriched uranium fuelled-reactors from abroad. Owing to the promise of only conditional fuel supply for these imported reactors in the US laws, energy bondage for India comes as bonus! How the Congress party means to paint this deal, clearly an electoral liability, as a would-be policy success, is anybody’s guess.

Mounting a massive public relations effort will not work. After all, the deal has floundered despite being strongly pushed by the government and the most powerful private sector companies in the country, incessantly plugged by the giant media houses, including the supposedly influential English language newspapers, periodicals and television channels, exhaustively championed by the bulk of the strategic analysts and think-tanks, and hurrahed on from the sideline by Washington. Notwithstanding this media blitz, the people have grasped the essential kernel of truth amidst all the analytical fluff and rhetorical husk flying around, that this deal, however it is dressed up, augurs ill for the country.

It has burnished the reputation of the Communist Parties, who may have ended up doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, and, to an extent, in washing the taint off the Bharatiya Janata Party as the originator of this misbegotten deal, but which has since made amends by leading the charge against its new avatar in Parliament and outside.

Almost all the lines of argument in support of the nuclear deal have proven to be wrong or unsustainable. There is one last tack the Congress party-led coalition regime has just tried, which also needs to be debunked. A few days back, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee pitched the nuclear safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency to the Left parties as necessary for the conduct of trade with the Nuclear Suppliers Group countries other than the United States, as if the criteria for nuclear commerce with America were different from that for nuclear transactions with the other NSG members, which is manifestly incorrect. The Hyde Act instructs the US Government to ensure that all the NSG states adhere closely to the restrictions on technology sales and transfers imposed by the US domestic laws, a position reiterated in a recent ’’non-binding resolution’’ introduced by leading legislators in the US Congress.

As regards the agreement on nuclear safeguards in perpetuity on all ’’civilian’’ nuclear reactors and facilities in the country, the fact is the IAEA sent a draft agreement to Delhi. As required by India’s status under the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty, the draft treats this country as a non-nuclear weapon state and hints at no concession supposedly inhering in the Joint Statement of July 18, 2005 signed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George W. Bush, which recognised India as a ’’state with advanced nuclear technologyā€¯, which phrase the government repeatedly assured the people and Parliament amounted to the US conceding it nuclear weapon state-status.

It was pointed out by this analyst at the time that this self-serving reading of the statement was so much American-conjured hog-wash. But the concerned members of the Department at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, led by the Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission, Dr Anil Kakodkar, and his confidant, V. B. Grover, who were in the negotiations, are in a dilemma, required as they are to square the circle on the safeguards issue. In the event, the visit by the IAEA chief, Dr ElBaradei, to Mumbai will not only highlight the contradictions in India’s position, providing further proof, if any were required, that Dr Kakodkar has been the proverbial sap, a pliable tool in the hands of the Manmohan Singh Government intent on lashing together a deal to eviscerate the indigenous nuclear programmes and capabilities.

The whole thing is such an embarrassing mess and has created so much bad blood within the nuclear establishment between the few proponents and the many opponents of the deal, that in a gathering on September 30 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Nuclear Power Corporation in Mumbai, Dr R. Chidambaram, Dr Kakodkar’s predecessor in office and the current Science and Technology Adviser to the PM, was excoriated by BARC stalwarts like Y.S.R. Prasad. According to those present there, he ended weakly by saying that ’’armchair strategists’’ have it easier than those making policy. The National Security Adviser, M.K. Narayanan, reportedly puts up similar defence of the deal, but uses his charac-teristic sarcasm, to wit: ’’Would you like to take my job?’’ Obviously, neither of these high officials can defend the indefensible, wisely or even well, which is a sorry tale in itself.

It only deepens the mystery about why it is that the ruling Congress party is trying so desperately to shove this deal down the nation’s throat, even at the cost of being thrown out of power. It must be some very powerful set of personal and collective motivations indeed, which the US official documents declassified 30 years hence or sooner (courtesy the Freedom of Information Act) will no doubt reveal.

In the meantime, there is no getting around the fact that this deal goes against the grain of the country’s nuclear programme. With Jawaharlal Nehru’s backing, Bhabha did two things: he implemented the policy of ’’growing science’’ at home, in contrast to what all the other Ministries in the government were doing—importing technology. And, he put his interlocked three-stage plan into motion, hoping to minimise the country’s exposure to the HEU (highly-enriched uranium) economy, which he apprehended the West would push to the detriment of the utilisation of thorium, which India has plenty of. Some 50 years on, Bhabha’s worst fears are coming true, and the twin programmatic thrusts are sought to be reversed by the nuclear deal with the United States, ironically, by Nehru’s grand-daughter-in-law and her choice as the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh.

(Courtesy : The Asian Age)

Bharat Karnad is a Professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, and author of Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security, now in its second edition.

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