Why India’s Powerful Anti-Deterrent Lobby Supports Nuclear Deal With The U.S.

Pro-Deal But Anti-Deterrent

None of today’s deal pushers wanted India to go overtly nuclear. They are thus not concerned that the nuclear deal will adversely affect the still-nascent deterrent.

Brahma Chellaney

Asian Age, Saturday, January 5, 2008

With the Indian team now in Vienna for further safeguards-related negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency, one remarkable fact has escaped attention in the national debate over the divisive nuclear deal with the United States. Those in the political establishment and outside who are stridently pushing the deal may be a varied lot but share one common trait: None had advocated or desired that India go overtly nuclear. This lot thus is unabashedly blasé about the deal’s fetters on a still-nascent deterrent whose development it didn’t support in the first place.

Check their backgrounds and you will find that the deal pushers — whether they are political leaders, bureaucrats, analysts or simply drum-beaters — did not favour testing in the period between 1994 and 1998 when a succession of five Indian governments wrestled with the issue of whether the window of opportunity was closing for India to exercise its long-held nuclear option. In fact, today’s most-ardent deal peddlers — without exception — worked hard within the government or outside in those critical years to stop India from breaking out of its nuclear straitjacket.

A fresh reminder that those for the deal remain against a credible deterrent came during the recent Parliament debate on the subject when the external affairs minister, speaking in place of a loath-to-reply prime minister, repeatedly castigated the predecessor government for crossing the nuclear Rubicon, saying that action breached the long-standing official policy to retain the nuclear option, not to exercise it. As Pranab Mukherjee put it, “We used to have a pledge from 1974 till 1998, almost quarter of a century, that we shall keep our options open.”

Given the growing conventional military asymmetry with China, India’s need for a reliable nuclear deterrent that can survive a first strike has never been greater. Not only are conventional weapons far more expensive, but also India is heavily dependent on their imports. Yet, through the insidious deal with the US, New Delhi is accepting constraints on its indigenous deterrent’s development, with Mukherjee bluntly telling Parliament that his government and party were a “strong believer in total nuclear disarmament” and did not want India to emerge as a major nuclear power. “That is the foreign policy, that is the philosophy,” he proclaimed.

Oddly, such an assertion comes when India has yet to build and deploy even a barely minimal deterrent against China. No government leader has claimed, or can assert, that the country today can effectively deter China, its primary challenge. Indeed, the key task India faces today is to build a stout deterrent, however small, that can help deter an increasingly assertive China that has gone from preaching the gospel of its “peaceful rise” to taking its gloves off.

From provocatively demolishing some unmanned Indian forward posts at the Tibet-Bhutan-Sikkim tri-junction, to aggressively asserting its jurisdiction over islets claimed by Vietnam in the the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos, and to sparking diplomatic spats with Germany, Canada and America over the official hospitality or honour they extended the Dalai Lama, Beijing of late has shown an increasing propensity to flex its muscles.

By sheltering behind calcinatory and delusional rhetoric, New Delhi overlooks a central reality: In today’s world, a country can impose its demands on another not necessarily by employing direct force but by building such asymmetric capabilities that a credible threat crimps the other side’s room for manoeuvre. Nothing better illustrates this danger than New Delhi’s own action in pulling the wool over public eyes by denying the Chinese demolition of the Indian forward posts, lest questions be asked at home as to what it has done in response to the provocation. It even goes to the extent of needlessly downplaying the increasing cross-border Chinese military incursions.

The more India falls behind its minimum-deterrence needs, the more likely it will pursue a feckless China policy.

Unlike conventional weapons, systems of nuclear deterrence have to be developed indigenously and without the lure of illicit kickbacks. A decade after declaring itself a nuclear-weapons state, India’s primary focus today is more on buying high-priced conventional weapons from overseas (reflected in its emergence as a top arms importer in the world) than on plugging gaps in its deterrence. Consequently, India’s goal of erecting a credible and survivable nuclear deterrent, as the private intelligence service Stratfor put it, is at least a decade away.

Yet the government pooh-poohs the deal-related implications but flaunts its “firm commitment on disarmament, firm commitment on non-proliferation, which [is] embedded in our civilization and in our history,” to quote the irrepressible Mukherjee. Only powers with surplus or obsolescent weapons needing disposal trumpet their interest in arms control and disarmament, not a nation dependent on others to meet its basic defence needs.

To concerns that the deal impeded India’s deterrent plans and eliminated the leeway the country enjoyed in 1974 and 1998 to test, the minister responded with derision. “Shri Advani also pointed out that there will be no tests. Do you not want Programme III [Pokhran III]?” he taunted the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha who had walked out with his party MPs before the speech.

In the other House, a less-mocking Mukherjee had this to say: “If India considers it necessary, it will undertake the test. As we did it in 1974, as we did in 1998, and the consequences will also follow. It is as simple as that.” The minister did not elaborate on what those consequences would be, although they have been spelled out unambiguously by America — the termination of all cooperation, the right to seek the return of what has been supplied, and getting other supplier-states to also cut off cooperation.

Consider this: Those in office today are willing to enter into nuclear cooperation with the US on the explicit understanding that if a future government tested, fuel and spare-part supplies and other cooperation would cease. They are also willing to saddle the country with a host of legally irrevocable obligations — from accepting permanent international inspections on all its civilian facilities to adhering to US-led cartels from which India has been excluded.

There were no such conditions, not even an implied test ban, when India first entered into civil nuclear cooperation with the US in 1963, at a time when it had been militarily humiliated by China and was strapped for cash. Generous low-interest US credit persuaded India to drop its preference for a natural uranium-fuelled power plant and accept a Boiling Water Reactor (BWR) station dependent on external fuel supply, in keeping with US policy to sell only such leverage-gaining reactors. Yet when America unilaterally walked out of its 123 Agreement with India in 1978, why did New Delhi not exercise its right to terminate IAEA inspections at Tarapur, the sole plant set up under the accord?

Declassified US documents show that the CIA had correctly assessed that India would not end its obligations even after America had broken its word, but instead would seek US help to find a substitute fuel supplier to keep electricity flowing to the Bombay region. That is exactly what happened. But in return, to this day, India has exacerbated its spent-fuel problem at Tarapur by granting the US a right it didn’t have even if it had not walked out of that accord — a veto on Indian reprocessing of the accumulating discharged fuel.

In that light, ask yourself: Having invested tens of billions of dollars in importing several new nuclear-power plants and having created electricity dependency, would India be able to test, when the basis of new cooperation is an explicit test prohibition written into Hyde Act’s Section 106, an unequivocal US “right of return” enshrined in the 123 Agreement’s Article 14(4), and the recourse to an alternative fuel supplier foreclosed by US law? Even Mukherjee could only waffle.

Still, Mukherjee turned India’s publicly enunciated doctrine of a “credible minimal deterrent” on its head by calling it “minimum credible deterrent,” which implies that the deterrent’s credibility would be kept to a minimum — as it has been. “We want minimum credible deterrent, from our security perspective,” he declared in the Rajya Sabha. This came after he confessed, “I was a little confused when Shri Yashwant Sinha tried to play with the words ‘credible minimum deterrent,’ whether it is minimal or whether it is minimum or whether it is credible. I then asked my officers to brief me on this.”

As defence minister, Mukherjee was down-to-earth and focused on national interest. But as EAM, he risks becoming external to national interests, unless he chooses his briefers more carefully.

This was underlined during the debate not only by the factually incorrect statements he made (highlighted in my last column) but also by the troubling sense of history he articulated: “When in 1974 Shrimati Indira Gandhi went for the nuclear explosion, it was not for indulging in weaponization… She categorically mentioned, ‘I wanted to have the technology. I wanted to test the competence of the Indian scientists, Indian technicians and Indian engineers’.” Here is a senior minister telling the Lok Sabha in earnest that the onerous technology sanctions India still confronts were triggered by a test whose sole purpose was the then PM’s itching but aimless desire to test the competence of scientists and engineers!

Indira Gandhi, India’s only strategically minded PM, was definitely not part of the sizable constituency opposed to nuclear weaponization that the country has had for long. This constituency has always comprised two groups — those anti-nuclear on honest ideological grounds, including many Gandhians and leftists; and those disingenuously citing pragmatism but being rank ideologues in giving primacy to economics over larger strategic considerations or wanting a nuclear policy that paid obeisance to the nuclear Pope, the US.

Faced with a fait accompli following the surprise 1998 tests, many in the second group were quick to embrace the new reality and some to even welcome it. That matched the nimbleness with which American policy shifted its own goal — from dissuading India from crossing the nuclear threshold to preventing its emergence as a full-fledged nuclear-weapons state by bringing it into the US-fashioned non-proliferation regime. It is that revised goal that today serves as the foundation of a deal whose embedded constraints, in the words Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Joseph Biden, “will limit the size and sophistication of India’s nuclear-weapons programme.”

Yet there has been no dearth of reminders since the abortive 1999-2000 attempt to get India into the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty that the powerful anti-deterrent lobby has not fully reconciled to the country’s overt nuclearization. Unable to undo India’s nuclear-weapons-state status, this lot has sought to do the next best it can: Sell India’s nuclear soul. The deal, whose vaunted energy benefits now stand thoroughly discredited, mortgages India’s future security at the altar of US non-proliferation interests.

(c) Asian Age, 2008

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