Breaking from the past India and US opt for a new relationship

Breaking from the past
India and US opt for a new relationship
by H.K. Dua

Nations like individuals cannot afford to remain prisoners of the mantras that have outlived their utility. The world has been changing fast over the years. The ability of a nation to adjust its policy to the changes and make the best of the opportunities thrown up will determine its place in the world.

For decades, India has remained stuck with the economic policies that were no longer of use and sluggish enough to move at the Hindu growth rate of 2 or 3 per cent. In the 1990s, Dr Manmohan Singh launched economic reforms and, despite odds and a late start, the nation is now growing at 8 per cent and is aiming at 10 per cent growth. The economic reforms had become necessary not only to catch up with China – which had discarded some of its dogmas – but also to fight poverty and unemployment and much else India has been burdened with.

The latest nuclear deal the Manmohan Singh government has signed with the United States also marks a major departure from some of the shibboleths that were keeping India’s foreign policy caught in a groove. The nuclear deal is bound to be a subject of animated discussion and analysis in most capitals of the world. This is mainly because it has in a way stirred up the global scene and the “balance of power” which, despite the odium the term enjoys, characterises stability in the world order and certainly in Asia.

Dr Manmohan Singh since July 18 last year, when he signed the Nuclear Cooperation Agreement with President George W. Bush in Washington, has been stressing that the nuclear deal with the US is essentially aimed at ensuring fuel supplies for the nuclear power reactors to boost the economy of India of the 21st century. He may not be going to town about these, but he is not unaware of the widespread ramifications the deal is going to have for India’s foreign policy and what kind of place India has to have in the emerging world order. Besides ensuring fuel and technology supplies, it may throw up more options for India in dealing with other countries, particularly in Asia.

Even if it is not stated specifically, the India-US nuclear deal amounts to the recognition of India by the United States as a nuclear weapon state. This is clearly implied in the clause in the deal which stipulates that eight out of the 22 Indian reactors will be kept on the military list not open to international safeguards. This means India’s capacity to make nuclear weapons has not been capped as demanded by many in the US Congress.

Although full details will be available when the Prime Minister makes a statement in Parliament later this week, the deal provides for India going in for more nuclear reactors and it will be for India to decide which nuclear reactor has to be in the civilian list to produce only energy and which reactor on the military list to produce the stuff needed for nuclear weapons.

As expected, the US negotiators made some direct or indirect efforts to limit the size of the nuclear deterrent at the existing level, but India made it very clear that it would neither disclose the size of its nuclear arsenal, nor its plans for developing more nuclear weapons.

At a very early stage of the talks, the Indian negotiators made it clear that while India was keen to go ahead with the deal to acquire access to fuel and technology from abroad, it would in no way curtail the existing strategic nuclear deterrent and, if necessary, its future growth.

The language was plain: India will retain the right to determine the size of nuclear deterrent according to the threat perception at a particular time. In other words, India alone will decide how many nuclear warheads it should have and that it would brook no international constraints on this account.

Once this was made clear to the Americans, the talks moved on to hard bargaining which went on till late in the night, for some of them until 2 a.m. The point at which the negotiators were held up was the US insistence on a perpetuity clause envisaging that international safeguards for civilian reactors should be permanent. Having ensured that the Fast Breeder Reactor programme and the reactors producing material needed for nuclear weapons would not be open for international inspection, India had no objection to the perpetuity clause, provided the US agreed that the fuel supplies would also be perpetual.

It required President Bush’s intervention to ensure agreement on the sticky point. Apparently, legislative and other steps will now have to be devised by the US during the few weeks in collaboration with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). That the IAEA has already been somewhat in the loop is evident from the fact that its Director-General has already described the Indo-US deal as a milestone.

For the Prime Minister and his negotiating team clinching the deal must have come as a happy ending to the nuclear dialogue with the Bush Administration which began in Washington in July last year.

That India succeeded in ensuring supplies of nuclear fuel for several decades for its present and future nuclear reactors without compromising its nuclear deterrent should also satisfy Indian scientists who became vocal during the last few days to protect the sanctity of the nuclear weapons and FBR programmes on which they had laboured over the years. They seem to be happy that the Prime Minister took their protests seriously and ensured that what the scientists had achieved over the years in the weapons and the FBR programme would remain out of the sight of the international inspectors. India would, in a nutshell, retain its unhindered control over its nuclear deterrent as well as its future development.

It is not only fuel for the existing and future reactors India will get, the deal provides also for lifting the restrictions placed on the supply of dual technology items in 1974 at Pokhran. The technology denial regime had become a sore point with India. Now India can access sensitive technology that was being denied to its nuclear reactors, space, defence and many other programmes.

Even before Mr Bush had landed in New Delhi, Dr Manmohan Singh had categorically assured the critics at home that he will not sign any deal that went against India’s national interest. Having lived up to his commitment, as expected, he can now boldly face Parliament where he is to make a statement this week.

The Left, the Marxists and others are already shifting their attack from the deal to a general criticism of getting closer to the US capitalist power and Mr Bush’s policy on Iraq and Iran. The Samajwadis, who are by nature negative in approach, are not much of a factor in Parliament.

The main opposition party, the BJP, would be looking into the fine print of the Prime Minister’s statement, but is unlikely to be seriously critical of the nuclear deal which perhaps could not be better.

The problem is for Mr Bush who is to sell the deal to the US Congress as well as other members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). The NSG members are unlikely to challenge the Bush administration’s skill, but in the US Congress, which is left with just 80 days of its term, barricades can be put up by those who have come to be known as the non-proliferation ayatollahs. Senator Hillary Clinton with her presidential ambitions is unlikely to oblige President Bush. Then there is Mr John Kerry and many other democrats who will be hard to convince; some Republicans would also need to be persuaded.

India has naturally gone by the presumption that Mr Bush has spent a lot of personal capital on the deal and as such will not spare any effort to get the Indo-US deal cruise through the Congress. Hopefully, Mr Bush will succeed.