India after the India-US Nuclear Deal
By Ambassador T.P.Sreenivasan
(Prepared text for a talk given at a Brookings-Carnegie-Stimson event at the Stimson Centre, Washington D.C at 430 pm on Wednesday, December 7, 2005)
I have been a witness to and a part of several defining moments in Indian foreign policy during my 37 years in the Foreign Service. They transformed the way Indian leaders and diplomats looked at the world and dealt with international issues, even though there were no announcements of any change of policy. They coloured our thinking and determined our judgments and clearly marked a break from our past habits and attitudes. Attaining self-sufficiency in food grains, the victory in the Bangladesh war, the PNE of 1974, the declaration of the emergency and the subsequent change of Government, the suppression of the coup in Maldives, economic liberalization and the nuclear tests of 1998 were some of these moments. That India did not have to depend on food imports to feed its millions sharpened the independent edge of Indian foreign policy. The victory in Bangladesh destroyed the notion that religion should determine nationhood. The PNE of 1974 made us proud of our scientific prowess. The emergency made us hang our heads in shame, but the subsequent elections, free and fair beyond doubt, strengthened our democratic foundations. Maldives established Indian pre-eminence in the Indian Ocean. The liberalization of the economy unleashed India’s economic strength. The tests of 1998 removed the last vestiges of insecurity from Indian minds.
The India-US nuclear deal of July 2005 marked yet another defining moment. India, which had fought nuclear ostracism of different grades since 1974, finally reached the point of finding a higher place in the nuclear caste system, very close to the Brahmins, the nuclear weapon states. It broke the barriers of NPT and CTBT to transform itself from a non-nuclear weapon state in possession of nuclear weapons to a responsible state with advanced nuclear technology with the rights and obligations similar to those of other such states, “such as the United States”. India overcame its half a century old paranoia about U.S. domination and felt confident about reaching an accommodation with it. It struck a balance between its need for technology and equipment and its fierce desire for autonomy in nuclear maters. It was a major event, as spectacular as the others, which dictated a new mindset for Indian diplomatic practitioners. But, unlike the other major events, the nuclear deal became a bone of contention within India and opened up an unprecedented foreign policy debate. Judging from the views of some former diplomats, it is possible to imagine that there is no consensus on it even within the establishment.
One reason for this phenomenon is that the nuclear deal was still a blue print when it was revealed and there were issues to be resolved before it became an accomplished fact. Both its promoters and detractors went to work and new issues emerged. No other bilateral agreement has been the subject of so much analysis before it came into effect. But if such an interregnum were available, many agreements would have been in jeopardy.
Of course, there are deeper reasons for the extraordinary attention that the nuclear deal has attracted. Most important among them is the popular suspicion about the motivation of the United States for finding an accommodation with India. There is much admiration in India for the U.S. for its accomplishments and its power. It is the Promised Land that beckons Indians who aspire high. But even after the end of the cold war, there is no change in the basic perception that the U.S has its own agenda in dealing with India. This is particularly grave when it comes to nuclear matters. Before the tests of 1998, even discussing nuclear issues with the United States was considered hazardous. The reaction to the tentative movements made by Mr. Morarji Desai and Mr. P.V.Narasimha Rao in this area was negative. But the Indian public became comfortable after May 1998 in seeking an understanding with the U.S. short of rolling and eliminating our nuclear capability. But the suspicion became deeper after the United States acknowledged Pakistan as a frontline state in its fight against terrorism. In the Indian mind, Pakistan is not just the initiator and promoter of terrorism but also a global supporter of it as an instrument of freedom struggle. So the repeated declarations by the United States that it wishes to see India as a great power have not made much of an impact on public opinion in India. It has been pointed out that no state can make another a great power, this being dependent on various inherent strengths such as economic and military strength and political resilience and a country’s own greatness. No power would want to build up another to compete with it. At best, the mood is to keep an open mind. The Iran issue, first the pipeline and then the nuclear waltz in Vienna further muddled the perception.
The question as to why the Bush Administration moved beyond the Jaswant Singh- Talbot exchanges and even NSSP to legitimize the Indian nuclear capability has not been answered fully. The official Indian explanation is that India has become such an important factor in global issues of interest to it that the U.S. wants to build a partnership with it. The interest of the E.U. and others to build partnerships with India supports this view. The more popular understanding is that the U.S. wishes to build a relationship with India to counter the spectacular economic, military and political power of China. Sufficient evidence exists to reinforce this theory, even though India itself does not endorse it. At the same time, it is obvious that the India card is only one among the many tools that the U.S. has in dealing with the emergence of China and, therefore, this factor should not be exaggerated beyond a point. At least one group of strategic thinkers believes that China is no threat to India or the United States. One theory is that the U.S. motivation is to get a hold over the Indian nuclear capability by enticing India into the non-proliferation regime by making illusory concessions. Those who subscribe to this theory see in the deal a Machiavellian strategy to circumscribe the Indian nuclear capability.
The Indian public is not convinced as yet that India needs the nuclear deal for its civilian or military needs. The Gandhian insistence on “swadeshi” or indigenous effort is deeply embedded in the Indian psyche and it has been nursed by occasional reports from our scientific establishments that the necessity of denial has become the mother of crucial inventions. The Indian nuclear programme has not been transparent and even the demand for transparency is muted by the awareness of national security considerations. There are half-baked notions about India using its plentiful thorium resources to replace uranium. The wastefulness of re-inventing the wheel does not seem to impress the “swadeshi” fraternity. Since the dire need for nuclear fuel, if not for modern technology and equipment, for energy generation has been a well-kept secret, many in India do not see why India should go out of its way to secure nuclear co-operation.
The global debate about nuclear versus conventional energy for development is also present among the Indian intelligentsia. Many believe that India’s quest for electricity on the nuclear route is neither necessary nor desirable. The present low share of nuclear energy in the Indian energy mix and the fear of accidents generated by Chernobyl have impacted Indian thinking. At least one state in India, Kerala, shares the allergy to nuclear power stations. Some do not even accept that nuclear energy is the cleanest form of energy. While it is free of greenhouse gas emissions, it has other hazards that make it unattractive.
Even those who understand the imperatives of joining the global nuclear mainstream think that India has made too many concessions in the deal. According to them, the total freedom that India had professed for many years had been sacrificed for the sake of minor benefits. The separation of military and civilian establishments, voluntary placement of the civilian establishments under IAEA safeguards and the signing of an Additional Protocol are seen as violative of our nuclear sovereignty. The U.S. on the other hand, has merely agreed to work with the Congress to change domestic laws and to consult allies to remove the constraints on full nuclear co-operation with India. The subsequent discussions in the Congress and the NSG in Vienna have shown that the U.S. part of the deal may not be delivered. There are also serious attempts to modify the terms of the agreement in a manner prejudicial to the overall balance of the package. The skepticism in India has further increased by the suggestion that the separation of facilities might not be entirely at India’s discretion. The danger of reopening of issues already negotiated and settled stares the deal in the face.
India’s present political dispensation casts its own shadow on the deal. For the first time in India, the Communists are part of the ruling coalition, though they are not in the Government itself. The Government operates within a common minimum programme drawn up by the coalition partners and one of the points agreed is that India will have an independent foreign policy. The nebulous concept of independence is subject to interpretation. For the communists, any increase in the U.S. influence in India is an aberration and the nuclear deal, therefore, goes against the grain. The recent murder of an Indian national by the Taliban in Afghanistan has been seen as a consequence of India getting closer to the United States.
The votaries of nonalignment too are uncomfortable with signs of abdication of freedom of action. This is based more on ideology rather than on the fact that India was never a part of the consensus on non-proliferation within the Nonaligned Movement because of its position as a non-NPT country. The nonaligned declarations on non-proliferation were attributed only to NPT member states. If anything, the deal will only bring India closer to the nonaligned position on non-proliferation. More than the terms of the nuclear deal, what provoked the leftists and the nonaligned were the coincidental developments with regard to Iran. For more than two years, India has been walking the tight rope in Vienna, striving to balance Iran’s rights and obligations with regard to its nuclear activities. Neither the United States nor Iran was displeased with the natural Indian position that Iran should live up to its obligations under the NPT and that Iran should allay the fears of the international community by providing answers to the questions raised within the IAEA. Referral to the UN Security Council is an action required of the Board of Governors under the Statute in the event of a determination of non-compliance. India and the Nonaligned Chapter in Vienna had never ruled out such a referral and indeed used it as a pressure point on Iran. It is clearly understood that a referral to the Security Council does not mean sanctions or war automatically. But in the wake of the nuclear deal, India’s position on Iran in Vienna became a litmus test of its commitment to non-proliferation. In a situation where Russia and China, two nuclear weapon states and Pakistan, a U.S. ally, abstained, India was pressurized to support the resolution, which it virtually disavowed in its explanation of vote. The Indian vote was cast to save the nuclear deal, not to castigate Iran. The Indian assertion that its vote was to get Iran more time to resolve the remaining issues carried no conviction.
The fact that India had never acted against the U.S. interests in Vienna even before was not highlighted and the Vienna vote became a symbol of submission. Whether the Indian vote under duress helped the U.S. in any manner is yet to be established. The linkage established between the nuclear deal and the Vienna vote served only to strengthen the suspicion of the U.S. motives. There was a collective sigh of relief when a vote was averted in November, but the hero this time was Russia. In the IAEA itself, India gained on account of the vote as it moved from the sidelines of the Iran debate to the center stage. One of the reasons for the postponement of a vote in November is attributed to the possibility of India changing its vote on account of leftist pressure.
Another unfortunate twist of fate was that the deal came at the very moment when India’s quest for a permanent membership of the Security Council was at its most intense phase. The criteria that the United States spelt out for new members appeared to fit India perfectly well except for the one on non-proliferation and the deal appeared to have removed this last obstacle. Together with the declaration that it would lead India to the high table of great powers, the nuclear deal raised hopes in India that the United States would finally signal support for India to take a place at the horseshoe table at the United Nations. In Indian popular perception, permanent membership is synonymous with global status and its denial is seen as contradicting the declared intentions of the United States. Another anomaly that baffles Indians is the exclusion of India from APEC. Praise of India’s liberalization, economic performance and democracy does not jell with India’s exclusion from a group to which it rightfully belongs in every way.
The way the Indian public reacted to the mention of the then Minister of External Affairs and the ruling Congress Party in an annex to the Volcker report was not unrelated to the nuclear deal and the Vienna vote. The first to play up the Volcker report were the leftists on the assumption that the Minister was the architect of the new relationship with the United States. When the Minister sought to distance himself from the new posture in Indian foreign policy, the leftists became his supporters and the opposition his detractors, leaving very little option with the Prime Minister other than of divesting him of the crucial external affairs portfolio. The nuclear deal claimed its first victim. Normally, the uninvestigated reference to the Minister and his Party would not have raised such a storm in India. It simply merited an investigation and the Minister could have continued till the charges were proved. It is the height of irony that those whom Volcker had indicted remain in high places while India loses a Minister who happened to figure in an uninvestigated allegation.
Opinions on the nuclear deal are divided both in India and the United States. But the detractors of the deal in India who feel that India conceded too much and those in the United States, who are convinced that the deal strikes at the root of non-proliferation have helped to highlight that the deal has achieved a balance of interests of both the countries. Once this realization dawns on them, there would be acceptance, however reluctant, of its basic merits. The non-proliferation concerns of the United States were essentially over horizontal proliferation and that is no more an issue as far as India is concerned. Vertical proliferation in India is constrained by India’s own policy of minimum deterrence and the moratorium on testing. The constraints imposed by the deal itself, such as inspections under an Additional Protocol will also guarantee that India does not engage in an arms race. The fear of the deal setting a bad example for others is unfounded as the case of India is sui generis. There is no other country with the same attributes and circumstances as India. Above all, smooth implementation of the nuclear deal will finally remove the apprehensions in the Indian mind about the motivation of the United States. The obvious thing to do is to implement the deal as the best in the circumstances.
India is conscious that the acceptance of the nuclear deal by the NSG will not be easy, particularly if its advantages are not highlighted by the public opinion in the United States. The threshold countries have hardened their positions as scholars in the United States have called for modifications of the deal. The critics in the United States have the bilateral dimensions in mind even when they assert the demands of non-proliferation, while he NSG members operate in a multilateral environment and tend to miss the wood for the trees. The onus of guiding the NSG into recognizing the merits of India joining them is that of the United States and the other nuclear weapon states. It is a good omen that the Director General of the IAEA, who has great influence on the thinking of the NSG, has welcomed the deal. He, more than anybody else, can vouch for the efficacy of the proposed inspection and spell out how the deal will contribute to the cause of non-proliferation.
Both India and the United States have a great stake in the success of the projected visit of President Bush to India early next year. The hope and expectation raised that he will go to India after establishing full nuclear co-operation with India should not be belied. New Delhi will receive him with garlands at any time, but the fragrance of the flowers of welcome will be even greater if he delivers on the promise of the nuclear deal.