Thursday, March 20, 2008

The “Unclear” Deal

By T.P.Sreenivasan

(Former Ambassador of India and Governor of IAEA)

After two years of the most extensive and exhaustive debate nationally and internationally, no one seems to be clear about the prospects of the Indo-US Nuclear Deal of 2005. The UPA Government, which piloted the deal with gusto till August 2007 and performed a negotiating feat by finalizing a bilateral agreement with the US (the 123 agreement) and appeared to be prepared to go down with it, if necessary, has suddenly lost momentum. The BJP, which initiated a new strategic partnership with the US and prepared the ground for the deal, wants it renegotiated, with no certainty that they can get a better deal. The left, with its abhorrence of possible US domination on account of the deal, blows hot and cold. For the first time in Indian history, India is in no position to operationalise an international agreement, which has been approved by its cabinet. The path ahead is unclear for the nuclear deal.

Except for a few fanatics, who think that India can do without nuclear energy in the future, no one believes that India can afford to continue its international isolation as a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). We know that we decided many years ago that the energy mix for India in the future will have nuclear energy as an important component. We also know that our civilian nuclear programme cannot be sustained at a level commensurate with our current economic growth unless we have access to fuel and technology from abroad. We know, therefore, that we need to have a deal of some kind at some time in the near future with the nuclear weapon states. In fact, India’s diplomatic efforts since 1974 have been directed towards securing such a deal without signing the NPT. Till 2005, the prospects for such a deal were gloomy, particularly after India defied international opinion and declared itself a nuclear weapon state. Any Government of India in the future, regardless of its ideology, will have to seek an accommodation with the international non-proliferation regime. What is unclear is the price we are willing to pay for such an accommodation.

For Indian diplomats, who have been engaged in disarmament negotiations for several years, the Indo-US Joint Statement of July 18, 2005 was a dream come true. President Clinton, with all his goodwill for India, could not go beyond setting aside the nuclear issue and proceeding with co-operation in other areas, but President Bush showed an alternative to the NPT route for India to end its nuclear isolation. India virtually won nuclear weapon state status with the same rights and obligations as the other nuclear weapon states. In return, India reaffirmed its moratorium on testing; it agreed to separate the Indian military and civilian nuclear facilities and place the civilian facilities under IAEA inspection and abide by the internationally accepted norms for export control and fissile material production. The balance of rights and obligations in the Statement ensured that we had a non-discriminatory regime in place. Against the backdrop of the bitter arguments of 31 years, the deal looked the best that we could ask for.

But a mix of ignorance, fear of the United States and undue optimism about our own capabilities ignited protests against the deal in India and the blind believers in non-proliferation in the United States and elsewhere raised a hue and cry. Both the Governments were pressured by their respective constituencies to become rigid, if not backtrack on the initial agreement. In India, it was the scientific community, unaccustomed to external inspections, which raised questions. The issue of the theoretical possibility of testing by India was raised repeatedly, making India suspect in the eyes of the world. They argued that the separation plan was expensive and unrealistic and that India’s deterrent as well as its fast breeder programme would be jeopardized by the deal. The non-proliferation Ayatollahs in the US created the Hyde Act of the US Congress, with the objective of constraining the Administration to put forward caveats of a political nature. The cumulative effect of these debates was that the Indian and US negotiators had their hands and feet tied as they sat down to negotiate the enabling 123 Agreement.

It is a tribute to the negotiating skills of the Indian diplomats and the willingness of the US to go more than half way that the 123 agreement was successfully negotiated. The contentious issues of testing and reprocessing were resolved for the purposes of the agreement, even though doubts remained on both these issues. India has the right to test, but the US has the right to react! The reprocessing scenario is far from clear as the modalities are yet to be worked out.

The Government genuinely believed that the agreement would move forward to the IAEA and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) before being submitted to the US Congress. But the bomb shell came not from the IAEA or the NSG, but from the leftist members of the UPA coalition when they demanded that the agreement should not be operationalised as they saw the grave danger of US hegemony in it. It is not clear as to why they chose to oppose the deal only after the agreement was reached with the US. They felt, perhaps, that the US would not agree to the features we were seeking in the agreement and, therefore, remained silent. The Government was unaware of the strong feelings in the minds of the Left and tried to call their bluff only to find that the Left was willing to bring the Government down on this issue. The UPA relented in the end and virtually put the agreement in the cold storage. Not that it loved the nuclear deal less: it loved power more. In any event, if they gave up power, the deal would have also fallen by the wayside.

The “unclear” deal will have to wait for better times when we have a Government which has the ability to implement agreements it negotiates with foreign governments. But it remains to be seen in what circumstances and under what conditions the deal will be operationalised. It is a deal, which is good for India, good for the US and good for the world. But it has to be acceptable to the members of the ruling coalition in India. In a democracy, the crucial test is not the merits of the issue, but its perception by the majority.

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