Strategic Imperative/Brahma Chellaney
Hush-Hush is Bush Word on Nuclear Deal
Covert magazine, June 1-15, 2008
The more the Indo-US deal has progressed, the more the conditions it has attracted and the greater the consequent imperative to keep key elements under wraps. Nearly three years after it was unveiled as a “historic” breakthrough in US-Indian relations, the deal’s future remains uncertain. Even if Prime Minister Manmohan Singh were to rupture his party’s relationship with the Left by taking the deal to the governing board of the International Atomic Energy Agency, can he ensure that the deal will take effect without attracting more odious conditions at the subsequent stages involving the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers’ Group and the US Congress? The deal has already divided India. And the possibility that the deal will get the final clearances without the attachment of further grating conditions seems remote. A showdown with the Left will break the present government without guaranteeing a final deal on largely palatable terms.
In any event, a deal of such strategic import that will lock India in perpetual, legally irrevocable commitments with the IAEA and arm the US with leverage ought not to be turned into a partisan issue domestically. Just as the Bush administration ensured congressional passage of the Hyde Act with bipartisan support, even if it meant loading the legislation with conditions unrelated to civil nuclear cooperation, Dr. Singh needs to build what he had promised long ago — a broad national consensus in support of the deal. To press ahead without such consensus would be a betrayal of national trust. In fact, that act would be doubly ironical: not only has the Indian Parliament been shut out from closely scrutinizing the deal, the US Congress will get a second chance to examine the deal when it comes in its final form, with the approval contingent on bipartisan support.
In that light, the Bush administration’s latest gag order on its written responses to congressional questions is an attempt to keep the Indian public in the dark on the deal’s larger and long-term implications. With New Delhi revealing little from the beginning, the Indian public had depended on US disclosures to understand the meaning of the various twists and turns in a continuing saga. But in recent months, new information has been hard to come by, with US officials becoming tight-lipped and the administration asking Congress to keep under wraps information that ought to be in the public domain.
Why all this secrecy about information the executive branch has shared with the legislature? Even though the deal is between the world’s largest and most-powerful democracies, hush-hush is the word on both sides. Take New Delhi’s own posture. It has refused to explain to Parliament and the public why it has willingly accepted an array of conditions under the bilateral 123 Agreement — conditions that range from India’s grant of an open-ended right to the supplier to suspend supplies forthwith simply by issuing a one-year termination notice, to the absence of any dispute-settlement mechanism such as an international arbitral tribunal that finds mention in the Japan-US 123 Agreement.
Even the men roped in by the government have not been very forthcoming on why they now support the deal. Take A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and Brajesh Mishra. Mishra has gone from being a critic to a proponent without explaining his volte face. All he says is that he was officially briefed and now “hopes” and “believes” the deal is no longer detrimental to Indian interests. But why doesn’t he share with the public any new facts or information he has received? Kalam’s coming out in support of the deal raises even more troubling questions. In 1999, as defence adviser, he came out publicly in support of India’s signature on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Now he lends support to a deal that drags India through the backdoor into the CTBT. He has declared, “If at any time there was a fear that national security would be compromised … we can at any time withdraw (from the deal)”. That suggests he hasn’t studied the deal: the 123 Agreement, for instance, makes explicitly clear that once it enters into force, India cannot free itself of its obligation to maintain international inspections in perpetuity on its entire civil nuclear programme.
Can pompous personal opinions help sideline or suppress hard facts? Given that India still does not have minimum deterrence against China, how justifiable is New Delhi’s focus on deal-making rather than on deterrent-building? And will playing hush-hush rescue a misbegotten deal?
Brahma Chellaney is Professor of Strategic Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.