A divisive deal

Print edition : July 28, 2006

An Aerial view of a demonstration against U.S. President George W. Bush's visit to India, in Mumbai on March 2. - PUNIT PARANJPE/REUTERS

While undermining the cause of peace, the India-U.S. nuclear deal is dividing domestic opinion and stoking an ultra-conservative reaction.

ONE year after it was initialled, the India-United States "nuclear cooperation" agreement is proving to be a political hot potato and a far greater liability than its Indian proponents had imagined - despite the recent passage of resolutions with strong majority support in the Foreign Relations Committees of both chambers of the U.S. Congress.

It seems almost certain that the resolutions will go through the full Senate and House of Representatives without major amendments to their central thrust. This gives U.S. President George W. Bush special authority to waive certain provisions of the Atomic Energy Act, 1954 (AEA-54), which prohibit nuclear cooperation with a country that does not conform to the U.S.-defined nuclear non-proliferation order. Such waiver is a precondition for the deal's implementation.

This gathering consensus in favour of the deal in the U.S. bears stark contrast to the sharp polarisation of opinion on it in India. Barring the Congress, no major political party is willing to defend the way it is being modified in the U.S. The Bharatiya Janata Party has launched an all-out offensive against it and says that the agreement must not bind future governments. The Left and centrist parties too are critical of the deal, albeit for different reasons.

Yet, India's foreign policy and security establishment, backed by a fawning media (with honourable exceptions), is exulting over it - a "win-win" for India and the U.S., a diplomatic "coup", a foreign policy "triumph", and so on . Meanwhile, Indian nuclear scientists and engineers have moved from sulking over the deal to condemning it outright.

Here lies a terrible irony. Just as India radically reshapes its relations with the world, it is deeply divided, public opinion is irrevocably split, even elite views are polarised. We have never before seen such a chasm on a foreign policy issue - neither over non-alignment in the 1950s, nor over the friendship treaty with the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in the 1970s, nor even after the Nehruvian consensus collapsed in the early 1990s, following the Soviet Union's demise. This should make the deal's zealous advocates pause and think.

After all, the agreement is not some minor stand-alone arrangement, unconnected with a new, special role for India within the U.S. scheme of things. It is an integral part of the global system of alliances that Washington is building in its effort to dominate the world by preventing the emergence of a rival power or an alliance of states that could challenge it in the foreseeable future. Along with the March 2 agreement between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Bush, it represents a paradigm shift in India's foreign and security policy posture.

In some ways (and admittedly with qualifications), U.S. plans for India - declared overtly through its March 2005 offer to help India become "a major world power in the 21st century", and followed by other far-reaching initiatives - are comparable to Washington's strategy of the early 1970s to wean China away from the USSR. The U.S.-USSR rivalry had a systemic character. India's status does not fit that description. But the neutralisation of a state with a strong tradition of policy independence and non-alignment, and with growing economic clout, is no small achievement for Washington.

This, as well as the content of the deal, with its negative implications for India's sovereignty and for the cause of world peace and global nuclear disarmament, furnishes a strong, logical, and rational ground for opposing it. But that is not where its most vocal Indian opponents come from.

The bulk of them - former and serving officials of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), and a few media commentators - lack a political perspective critical of the U.S. and its global role, which on balance is negative ("Ready to collude with empire?" Frontline, July 14 ). Some have a history of taking pro-U.S. positions.

They are guided by a narrow, militaristic and chauvinistic idea of the national interest and an absolute concept of sovereignty - which must be rethought in respect of weapons of mass destruction or acts that can constitute crimes against humanity (as the use of such weapons surely does). They do not ground their criticism of the deal either in India's declared "minimum credible nuclear deterrent" doctrine, or in principles of transparency and accountability, leave alone universal values such as human security and peace.

Thus, former Atomic Energy Commission Chairmen Homi Sethna and P.K. Iyengar demand that the deal be rethought because it will, in effect, cap India's programme for a minimum credible deterrent and keep India in perpetual bondage to Washington. Similarly A.N. Prasad, former Director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, has said that the deal would give the U.S. "near-total access" to India's "nuclear establishment through International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) ... inspections". Besides, "to a large extent, the deal will undermine the pride with which Indian nuclear scientists ... developed highly complex nuclear technology under heavy odds". Prasad fears that the U.S. would increasingly encroach upon India's civilian nuclear programme until only "a minuscule of activities [are] left under the strategic category".

Sethna goes so far as to say that India would be better off signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). "The NPT may be discriminatory, but we will still be allowed to exit whereas in the India-U.S. deal, India will remain bound in perpetuity." Earlier, another former AEC Chairman M.R. Srinivasan had assailed IAEA inspections as unacceptably intrusive: "You can't move even a chair without the inspectors' permission".

Such views are based on gross misinterpretations of the Congressional resolutions' wording, poor judgment, and paranoid opposition to any scrutiny or observation of India's nuclear activities by any agency other than the DAE. The substance of the resolutions is to give the President the power of one-time waiver of certain clauses of the AEA-54, which prohibit nuclear commerce with a country that has tested nuclear weapons, not signed the NPT, has a nuclear weapons programme, and so on . The seven operative "determinations" the President must make are a one-shot affair (although some qualifications have been added for the ad-interim period).

Neither the resolutions nor India's civilian-military separation agreed in March can result in a capping of India's nuclear-military programme. It bears recalling that India has only offered to safeguard 14 out of the 22 reactors that are currently operating or under construction. The unsafeguarded eight reactors alone can yield about 130 kg of Plutonium-239 a year. This is enough to make 26 Nagasaki-type bombs - even assuming that the rather high amount of 5 kg is needed for one weapon (instead of the 3 kg used in more advanced programmes).

In addition, India will have other unsafeguarded plutonium facilities, including two fast-breeders - which, by definition yield more plutonium than they consume - , and dedicated military reactors like Dhruva. (In addition, India is planning to build a much larger reactor than CIRUS, which is being closed down.) Surely, the ability to make 30 or 40 bombs a year, in addition to the existing estimated stockpile of 100-plus, fits the definition of "minimum credible deterrent" generally accepted in the "strategic community".

Admittedly, India will probably be unable to develop a hydrogen bomb arsenal without testing - which will trigger a halt to civilian nuclear cooperation with the U.S. under Section 129 of AEA-54. (Incidentally, amending this was not part of the July 18 deal either. Its text only noted India's unilateral testing moratorium, announced in 1998.) But no official has explicitly claimed, nor does it make sense, that you need hydrogen bombs for a "minimum" deterrent.

Therefore, the "capping" claim pertains to being prevented either from making hydrogen bombs, or from stockpiling an ever-expanding quantity of fissile material. In either case, the "credible minimum" is a moving target, which can be arbitrarily changed by citing an altered security environment, new "threats", or whatever. This robs "minimum" of any meaning.

In the 1980s, nuclear and military sources mentioned an arsenal of 50 to 60 fission bombs as adequate or "minimum". The number rose to 100-120 in the 1990s. Now, there is talk of 300 to 400 - which is still achievable within the deal's framework over time.

The "capping" claim, then, is specious. So is the claim that IAEA inspections are unacceptably intrusive. That has not been India's experience of such inspections at Tarapur and Rajasthan for decades. The IAEA is extremely discreet, indeed secretive. In any case, it is banned from unsafeguarded facilities, which include all of India's military-nuclear facilities and some civilian installations too. From the bomb-maker's point of view, India basically negotiated a highly favourable bargain, which legitimises its existing nuclear weapons and allows it to build many more.

The DAE scientist-engineers' objection seems to derive primarily from their long-standing suspicion of any non-DAE evaluation of their activities, and resistance to public accountability itself. The DAE has doggedly refused an independent regulatory board that has its own staff, equipment and budget. It has also used draconian clauses of the Atomic Energy Act 1962 to refuse to divulge to Parliament non-strategic information, including the output of heavy water, a civilian material. This affliction may not be unique to the DAE. (The Defence Research & Development Organisation is similarly opaque.) But it casts doubt over its credibility, especially given its past (although now somewhat-improved) record of poor performance.

None of this argues that the nuclear arrangement being worked out through Congressional resolutions is identical to the original agreement, leave alone free of major flaws. There are obvious differences between the two, for example, on sequencing. Earlier, India was asked to negotiate safeguards with the IAEA after the deal's congressional ratification. Now, it must do so before ratification.

Working with the U.S. for a Fissile Materials Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) was also agreed to, but now the FMCT looms large in its recently U.S.-defined avatar, without universal verification. Similarly, the Senate resolution imposes tougher-than-agreed conditions in respect of an IAEA Additional Protocol and safeguards agreement, and U.S. exports of certain technologies, and so on ("Assessing the nuclear balance sheet", The Hindu, July 7). Diluting these through "reconciling" the two resolutions after they are passed will probably require further lobbying and some legal fancy footwork in Congress.

Although the resolutions' "Sense of Congress" and "Statements of Policy" sections are not binding, they convey a clear, arrogant message through their content, tone and tenor. The U.S. is an imperious power that sees its policy objectives and methods as beyond question. If the NPT is important for it as the cornerstone of the global nuclear order, this must be repeatedly stated in India-specific resolutions - although India is not an NPT signatory. Similarly, references to halting fissile production in South Asia/China must be made, although the text is meant to legitimise India's nuclear arsenal.

This reflects American exceptionalism, at one level, and India's inferior, subordinate position vis--vis the U.S., at another. The "non-binding" formulation on isolating and sanctioning Iran is especially offensive and conveys a political message: a superior power talking down to its junior ally. The Ministry of External Affairs recognises some of this language as "intrusive and even offensive", but has decided to grin and bear it.

This is not for some noble cause, but to further consolidate the "strategic partnership" with the U.S. - on America's terms. The Ministry and its "pro-Washington pragmatist" outriders in the media are as committed to expanding India's nuclear arsenal as the DAE's "nuclear ultra-nationalists". They deserve no support or sympathy whatever.

The most logical, if not the only logical, position on the deal is that it will mark a retreat from sovereign foreign policy, and erode India's options even if the Congress resolutions are amended in India's favour.

Above all, the deal is a big setback to the cause of peace and the worthy goal of ridding the world of the nuclear scourge. Such a principled, balanced critique averts the pitfalls of both nationalist over-reaction and silence on the global effects of an arrangement that for the first time legitimises nuclear weapons since the NPT was negotiated almost 40 years ago.

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