Growing partisan rancor over the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal

Nuclear Deal: Questions That Baffle

 

Why is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in a hurry to approach the IAEA Board when he knows the deal cannot be sealed during the Bush presidency? The best way to proceed is to do what he had promised — build a broad political consensus in favour.

 

Brahma Chellaney

Asian Age, June 27, 2008

 

 

 

The civil nuclear deal with America, although steeped in growing partisan rancour, is hardly the weighty issue that should determine any government’s future. Indeed, it is an issue of little long-term import to India’s great-power ambitions or energy needs. For the U.S., the deal offers substantive benefits. But for India the benefits are largely symbolic.

 

Yet the costs the still-uncertain deal is exacting on India can be gauged from the self-induced federal paralysis, with a sulking prime minister withdrawing into a shell and senior ministers deferring important work. The defence minister, for instance, called off a trip to Japan intended to add strategic content to a bilateral relationship pivotal to power equilibrium in Asia. Such government disruption from the top has no parallel in the annals of independent India.

 

The ungainly political stagecraft on display raises several unanswered questions. The first relates to Dr. Manmohan Singh’s obsession with a deal that has begun to warp his priorities. Many are asking the same question: Why is he willing to stake his government’s future on a single issue of questionable long-term strategic weight? Can he fashion a legacy by choosing deal-making over deterrent-building?

 

What is mystifying is that Dr. Singh has landed the country in a political logjam over a deal he knows cannot be completed during the remainder term of U.S. President George W. Bush. Time has simply run out. Even in an overly optimistic scenario, the deal cannot be ratified by the present U.S. Congress.

 

In addition to New Delhi’s insistence on taking its safeguards accord with the International Atomic Energy Agency to the latter’s governing board at this stage — an action that will gratuitously tie the country’s hands even before the final deal is clear — an extraordinary plenary meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group will need to be held to consider a rule-change by consensus. An NSG waiver will neither be easy nor swift, with the U.S. itself seeking to attach conditions that mesh with its Hyde Act. In the last stage, the deal will come up for congressional ratification, but only after three documents — the so-called 123 agreement, a presidential determination that India has met all the stipulated preconditions, and a “Nuclear Proliferation Assessment Statement” — have been placed before the U.S. Congress “for a period of 60 days of continuous session”.

 

Given the limited number of days left in the present U.S. legislative calendar to let a ratification process run its full course, why this tearing hurry on the part of India to take the safeguards accord to the IAEA Board? Washington — whose almost-daily statements have sought to egg on New Delhi to play that very card, even if it led to the collapse of Dr. Singh’s government — acknowledged this week that, “obviously, the next U.S. government will have to look at this [deal] and make their own decisions on it”. In fact, as early as last month, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden had said the deal is unlikely to be approved in Bush’s term.

 

Before knowing how the NSG will condition cooperation with India or the attitude of the next U.S. administration, why is New Delhi willing to part with its last remaining card by taking the safeguards accord to the IAEA Board? That accord, at any rate, ought to be taken to the Board only after the contours of the Additional Protocol with the IAEA have been firmed up. Otherwise, a leverage-stripped India could face more-stringent and wider inspections when it returns for Additional Protocol negotiations.

 

Like the 123 agreement, India has already finalized and “frozen” the safeguards accord. But unlike the former, which was made public days after it was initialled, the latter text has not been shown even to coalition allies, underscoring the creeping official opacity.

 

There are other mysteries, too. One centres on Dr. Singh’s metamorphosis from being anti-nuclear to becoming a fervent votary of commercial nuclear power. As finance minister in the first half of the 1990s, Dr. Singh starved the nuclear programme of funds, disabling new projects and halting uranium exploration.

 

The uranium crunch India confronts today is rooted in the fact that the actions Dr. Singh set in motion then were not reversed until several years after he left office. That Dr. Singh’s newfound interest in nuclear power relates merely to reactor imports has been underscored by his recent action in cutting the Department of Atomic Energy’s 2008-09 budget by more than half a billion dollars.

 

Another unexplained action — one that demolishes the official contention that the deal has no bearing on the strategic programme — is the U.S.-dictated decision to permanently shut down Cirus, one of India’s two bomb-grade plutonium-production reactors. As Paul Nelson, T. V. K. Woddi and William S. Charlton of the Texas A&M University point out in a U.S. government-funded study, much of India’s cumulative historic production of weapons-grade plutonium has come from Cirus, operating since 1960.

 

As a completely refurbished reactor, Cirus is as Indian a facility as any. The prime minister’s baffling decision to shut down Cirus two years from now, without approving a replacement reactor, will leave a major production shortfall in military-grade plutonium.

 

No less troubling is the fact that solemn promises made in Parliament were not kept. After the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate Foreign Relations Committee had approved separate versions of an India-specific bill, the prime minister declared on August 17, 2006: “I had taken up with President Bush our concerns regarding provisions in the two bills. It is clear if the final product is in its current form, India will have grave difficulties in accepting the bills. The U.S. has been left in no doubt as to our position”. When Congress disregarded Dr. Singh’s red lines and passed the Hyde Act by amalgamating the toughest elements from the Senate and House bills, the prime minister admitted on December 18, 2006, that “there are areas which continue to be a cause for concern”.

 

Yet India negotiated a 123 agreement that complies with the Hyde Act, with the U.S. stating publicly, “We have the Hyde Act, and we kept reminding the Indian side, and they were good enough to negotiate on this basis…” Of all the 123 agreements the U.S. currently has with partner-states, the one with India stands out for conferring enforceable rights only on the supplier-state.

 

The prime minister’s assurances on ““removal of restrictions on all aspects of cooperation”, lifetime fuel stockpiles, linking perpetual international inspections with perpetual fuel supply through “India’s right to take corrective measures”, securing an operational consent to reprocess spent fuel, etc. today lie in tatters.

 

The government’s secrecy on the safeguards accord springs from the fact that its text release will expose the manner it has yielded further ground. For example, the 123 agreement, instead of granting the right to take corrective measures, just records that India will seek such a right in the IAEA accord. But the IAEA accord, in its preamble, merely cites the 123 agreement’s reference to corrective measures!

 

It is manifest from this record that if the deal attracts more onerous conditions during the NSG and congressional approvals, the prime minister will go along, as he has in the past, after making some perfunctory noises. Indeed, it is this record that is likely to embolden NSG members and U.S. lawmakers to tag on more conditions in the next stages to constrain India’s nuclear leeway.

 

As it nears its third anniversary, the deal has become an emblem of how not to conduct Indian diplomacy. The deal also symbolizes the manner it has been sought to be thrust on the nation through media management, instead of by political co-option.

 

Public relations alone cannot sell an initiative. Can it be forgotten that the deal’s current cheerleaders were the drumbeaters to get India to send an army division into Iraq in 2003? How more vulnerable would India have been today had that campaign succeeded?

 

Just as in 2003, today’s campaign is centred on overstatement — that the concerned issue holds the key to a strategic partnership with America. There is also gross exaggeration about the utility of high-priced, foreign fuel-dependent reactors from overseas.

 

The deal’s collapse will neither alter the direction of the U.S.-Indian relationship, which is set toward closer strategic cooperation, nor affect the modest role nuclear power will play in India’s energy mix, with or without reactor imports. The deal, contrary to the propaganda, does not offer India unfettered access to uranium imports. India’s uranium crunch, in any event, is set to ease in two years’ time as new mines and mills open, according to nuclear chief Anil Kakodkar.

 

In that light, how justifiable is Dr. Singh’s action in turning the conditions-laden deal into a make-or-break issue of personal prestige and upping the ante to the extent that the nation has been plunged into a political crisis? Instead of wanting to precipitously approach the IAEA Board and step into a firestorm of national furore, shouldn’t the prime minister seek to achieve what he pledged in Parliament — “the broadest possible consensus within the country to enable the next steps to be taken”?

 

Once the IAEA Board seals the safeguards accord, India will have little role to play in the next stages, other than as a bystander anxiously monitoring from afar what additional conditions the deal attracts in the NSG and congressional-ratification processes. So why throw nuclear caution to the winds and buoy up non-proliferation literalists in the NSG and Congress in their resolve to sculpt the final deal?

 

© Asian Age, 2008.

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