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Atomic impasse

Print edition : Sep 07, 2007 T+T-

The deal cannot be worked out without risking the UPA governments survival. The present pause should occasion a rethink on disarmament and energy.

IT is hard to believe that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could be so naive as to have been persuaded that he should call the Lefts bluff on the India-United States nuclear deal by granting an interview to the Kolkata-based Telegraph (August 11), in which he chided it for not having thought things through, and challenged it to withdraw support to the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.

He said: It is an honourable deal, the Cabinet has approved itif [the Left parties] want to withdraw support, so be itthey are our colleagues and we have to work with them. But they also have to learn to work with us.

There is reason to believe that Manmohan Singhs advisers reckoned that through the interview, he would be able to influence those whom they regard as the moderate modernisers of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), amply represented in its West Bengal unit, and help them prevail upon its hardliners to tone down or drop their opposition to the deal. This betrays a serious misunderstanding of how the Left parties function and make policy decisions, as well as the pervasiveness of their opposition to the deal, particularly the 123 agreement signed in late July.

Within three days, Manmohan Singh was suing for peace and requesting CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat to meet him over breakfast to defuse the grave crisis in UPA-Left relations that the Prime Minister had himself precipitated. Exactly a week after his interview had appeared, the partys Polit Bureau put the UPA on notice and demanded that it desist from taking further steps towards completing the deal by negotiating a special safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and getting the agreement approved by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), prior to its ratification by the U.S. Congress.

Looming large over the statement was a threat to end the Lefts support to the UPA government altogether, or move to issue-based support, both of which would make the government vulnerable. This was not an empty threat.

The current McCarthy-style media attack on the Left, maliciously accusing it of acting at Chinas behest, should not obscure the gravitas of its criticism of the deal. As the Polit Bureaus statement, and Prakash Karats articles in Peoples Democracy and The Hindu clarify, the CPI(M)s objection is substantially based on the wider implications of India being bound into a strategic alliance with the U.S. and its adverse conseq uences for an independent foreign policy, sovereignty and the economic interests of the people.

The party says the July 18, 2005, deal became possible only after the U.S. and India had signed the Defence Framework Agreement three weeks earlier.

The other Left parties strongly endorse this position. This is a far more foundational objection to the deal than the ground that there exist divergences between the Hyde Act and the Prime Ministers assurances to Parliament on August 17, 2006. Although the CPI(M) demands that talks on the deal be put on hold until the implications of the Hyde Act are evaluated and considered, the issue of a strategic alliance with the U.S. may not be easily resolved.

After all, the nuclear deal is the culmination of numerous politico-strategic arrangements, and itself an initiative to build a radically new relationship of exceptional proximity with the U.S., in which India becomes its vital ally, virtually on a par with Japan, Australia or Israel. This is unacceptable to the Left in principle. Its opposition does not arise from mindless, knee-jerk anti-Americanism, but from a critique of the U.S. deeply destabilising role in the world, itself inseparable from the Empire project.

Even on the Hyde Act, it will not be easy to reconcile UPA-Left differences, especially as regards the demand for congruence between Indian and U.S. foreign policy conduct, yearly certification by the U.S. President, and conditions and effects of the agreements termination.

The Lefts objections to the deal are not confined to these issues, but extend to three others: the deals incompatibility with the National Common Minimum Programme (NCMP), its fatal consequences for the nuclear disarmament agenda, and its obsessive emphasis on nuclear power as the key to energy security through the decarbonisation of energy generation.

The NCMP is not just another document. It is the core-basis on which the Left agreed to support the UPA. It promised that India would correct the strong pro-U.S. tilt in its foreign policy and security orientation under the National Democratic Alliance, work for a multipolar world, and assume a leadership role in fighting for global nuclear disarmament. The deal will detract from all this.

The deal will set a negative example for the global nuclear order, and encourage would-be proliferators. Pakistans efforts to obtain a similar agreement from China bear testimony to this proposition, as does Irans resentment against the U.S. double standards in offering the deal to India.

The August 7 statement of the Left parties on the deal recalls their well-known views against nuclear testing for weaponisation, and says it will lead to the relegation of Indias traditional commitment to universal nuclear disarmament. By getting accommodated in a U.S.-led unequal global nuclear order, Indias leading role in advocating nuclear disarmament as a major country of the non-aligned community is being given the go by. It also holds that nuclear power can only be a debatable basis of augmenting our energy resources, or achieving energy security.

This position is clearly at odds with Manmohan Singhs latest statement (August 19) that no government can afford to shirk the responsibility of pursuing a sound energy strategy in which nuclear power plays an important role: I urge all political parties to appreciate the vital national interest of pursuing a sound energy security strategy. India is on the move and we must be able to address its growing energy demand.

It is crucial today to sharpen the peace and energy angles in the critique of the nuclear deal especially if the Left is to demarcate itself sharply from the Right, for which possession of mass-destruction weapons is the touchstone of national sovereignty. Nuclear weapons are utterly and always indefensible, and generally incompatible with international law, according to an International Court of Justice verdict in 1996. They are illegitimate because they cause indiscriminate destruction over many generations, are primarily directed at non-combatant civilians, and kill in degrading, cruel and inhuman ways. They do not produce security, but mass terror.

The India-U.S. nuclear deal sanctifies these weapons and recruits India into the Nuclear Club as a responsible state with advanced nuclear technology. The price is Indias legitimation of the U.S. nuclear weapons. If the Left parties do not speak out against this grotesque perversity, no other party will.

India can do this by keeping eight out of its 22 operating/under-construction power reactors out of IAEA inspections, and by reprocessing their spent fuel; by exempting all military-nuclear facilities and the Prototype Fast-Breeder Reactor from safeguards; and by diverting scarce domestic uranium from power reactors to weapons use, while importing uranium for electricity generation. This will have serious consequences in the shape of an arms race not just with Pakistan, but with China, which will reduce security for all concerned.

This column has often criticised the relevance, high economic and environmental costs, and safety of nuclear power. Now, solid evidence against the claim that it can decarbonise the energy economy by reducing greenhouse gas emissions comes from a study by the Oxford Research Group (available on The Hindu website).

This shows that in order to reduce emissions significantly, the global nuclear industry would have to build one large reactor every week for the next 60 years. The world has built a cumulative total of a little more than 400 nuclear reactors over the past five decades. This would mean constructing almost the same number every year a manifest impossibility.

The nuclear deal, then, is the wrong way to go. It will promote neither military security nor energy security. It is fundamentally anti-peace and will prevent India from playing an independent global role, particularly in making the world less skewed, less strife-torn, more balanced and peaceful. It is tragic that the land of the Buddha and Gandhi should stoop so low.