The way forward for India on an increasingly divisive nuclear deal with the U.S.

Emulate America’s bipartisan handling

Brahma Chellaney
The Hindu newspaper
June 28, 2008 

The way forward on the nuclear deal is not through disinterest in bipartisan consensus but by emulating the example set by the much-maligned Bush administration at home.

The political drama and uncertainty in India triggered by partisan wrangling over the civil nuclear deal cannot shroud a key fact: Three years after the deal was unveiled as a “historic” breakthrough in U.S.-India relations, its final shape remains unclear and its future uncertain. Several developments have only increased the odds that finalising and implementing the deal will be a long, arduous challenge for both sides.

The most prominent of these developments is that time has run out for the deal to be approved during U.S. President George W. Bush’s term in office. Given the extended requirements for congressional ratification set by the U.S. Atomic Energy Act and Hyde Act, it will be a Barack Obama or John McCain administration — and a new U.S. Congress — that will have the final say on the deal. While acknowledging this reality, the Bush administration, however, continues publicly and privately to prod New Delhi to play its last card by taking the safeguards accord to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s governing board for approval.

With no role to play in the subsequent stages, India may see more conditions being tagged to the deal by the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group and the U.S. Congress. Considering how the deal picked up tougher terms with each stage it crossed, there is a distinct possibility that it would attract more conditions in the remaining phases. Take the NSG process, which promises to be drawn-out in view of the impending change of administration in Washington. Although Prime Minister Manmohan Singh voiced hope in Parliament on August 13, 2007 that the NSG rule-change for India would occur “without conditions,” an unconditional waiver now looks fanciful. The Bush team is loath to share with New Delhi its revised draft proposal to the NSG.

In fact, one of the Hyde Act’s prerequisites for the deal’s congressional approval is that any NSG rule-change must mirror the conditions that legislation has set for nuclear commerce with India — from a permanent test ban and tightly regulated uranium access, to a continued prohibition on all civil nuclear fuel-cycle technologies and the right to demand the return of transferred items and materials. The Act requires that an NSG exemption should neither be less stringent nor take effect before congressional ratification of the deal. Its clause-by-clause explanatory notes state that no NSG decision should “disadvantage U.S. industry by setting less strict conditions … than those embodied in the conditions and requirements of this Act.”

The concern is that if the NSG fails to replicate U.S.-style conditions, New Delhi would do an end-run around America to buy power reactors from Russia and France. Indeed, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice assured Congress barely four months ago that the NSG exemption will be “completely consistent with the obligations of the Hyde Act.” The Act asserts the U.S. has the “necessary leverage” in a group it founded to “ensure a favourable outcome.”

Given these realities, there ought to be neither hurry nor heat in evolving India’s strategy and options on the deal. This is an issue that needs to be discussed dispassionately, in a bipartisan spirit, without succumbing to contrived deadlines. After all, the deal centres on the very future of the country’s nuclear programme. Once India has invested billions of dollars in importing power reactors, the congressionally enforced conditions, with cyclic presidential certifications of Indian “compliance,” will effectively bear it down. Even when Washington walked out midway from a binding 30-year bilateral pact over just one plant, the U.S.-built Tarapur nuclear power station, New Delhi continued to honour the accord’s terms till the end — and even beyond to this day.

Declassified U.S. 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 U.S. help to find a substitute fuel supplier to keep electricity flowing from Tarapur. That is exactly what happened. But in return, to this day, India has exacerbated its spent-fuel problem at Tarapur by granting the U.S. 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. Yet, even in the latest deal, India has inexplicably agreed to forego reprocessing until it has, in the indeterminate future, won a separate, congressionally vetted agreement.

The political passions the deal is generating make it all the more important that spin should not be allowed to obfuscate facts. Both America and China stand to gain from the qualitative and quantitative fetters the deal imposes on India’s deterrent, including the test prohibition and the forced shutdown of Cirus — one of the two research reactors producing weapons-grade plutonium. Yet vicious attacks have been orchestrated on the Left for allegedly acting at China’s behest. Disinformation has been planted to sow confusion in the BJP ranks and break the party’s steadfast opposition to the deal. Can slogans and taunts serve as a substitute to an informed debate on an increasingly complex and technical deal?

One would have expected greater transparency in a deal between the world’s most-populous and most-powerful democracies. In one telling example, the Bush administration, through a gag order on its written responses to congressional questions, has sought to keep the Indian public in the dark on the larger implications, lest the deal should run into rougher weather. In another example, New Delhi continues to shy away from explaining why it agreed to certain glaring provisions in the 123 agreement, such as its grant of an open-ended right to the supplier to suspend supplies forthwith simply by issuing a one-year termination notice on any ground, or the conspicuous absence of any dispute-resolution mechanism.

Citing the newfound support to the deal by A.P.J. Abdul Kalam or Brajesh Mishra can hardly lay to rest nagging questions. Cryptic personal opinions of individuals, however distinguished, will not obscure hard facts. After having been a party to all the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led pronouncements against the deal since 2005, Mr. Mishra has suddenly gone solo to find virtue in the accord. All he says is that he was officially briefed and now “hopes” and “believes” the deal is no longer injurious to Indian interests. But why not share with the public any new material facts he may know?

Mr. Kalam, as scientific adviser in 1999, publicly supported the then government’s U.S.-instigated but abortive move to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Now, in lending support to a deal that drags India through the backdoor into the CTBT, Mr. Kalam says: “If at any time there was a fear that national security would be compromised … we can withdraw.” This shows he hasn’t studied the deal, because the one common thread running through the Hyde Act, the 123 agreement, and the safeguards accord is that India is to be barred from ever halting international inspection of its entire civil nuclear programme, even if the U.S. unilaterally terminated cooperation.

Let’s be clear: the deal has divided India like no other strategic issue. The rancorous divisiveness ought to give pause to those who may think the deal can be rammed through. Indeed, through political over-investment, the deal has been meretriciously presented as the centrepiece, if not the touchstone, of a new Indo-U.S. partnership. To depict the deal as critical to U.S.-India ties is to suggest the base of that relationship is still narrow. Any bilateral relationship cannot rise or fall on the basis of a single issue.

New Delhi’s best option today is to let the deal enter a period of suspended animation and await the new political line-up in Washington. A critical matter like this, which is going to tie India to legally irrevocable international inspections, demands a broad consensus at home. To ignore the widespread misgivings and to precipitously proceed ahead will set a treacherous and damaging precedent.

Dr. Singh had assured the nation on several occasions that he would build a broad political consensus in the deal’s favour. Just two days after signing the original deal on July 18, 2005, he said: “It goes without saying that we can move forward only on the basis of a broad national consensus.” On August 17, 2006, he told the Rajya Sabha: “Broad-based domestic consensus cutting across all sections in Parliament and outside will be necessary.” Subsequently, he reassured Parliament that he will “seek the broadest possible consensus within the country to enable the next steps to be taken.”

That is exactly the wise course he needs to follow today. The partisan acrimony needs to be defused.

New Delhi should learn from the way the much-maligned Bush administration has handled the deal domestically — by forging an impressive political consensus. The Hyde Act was the product of such consensus-building and political co-option, with the administration holding closed-door briefings for lawmakers and allowing its three-and-a-half-page bill to be turned into a 41-page, conditions-stacked legislation. Bipartisan support also holds the key to the deal eventually winning congressional ratification. In India, the deal ought not to be turned into a partisan issue, for it will have to be implemented well after the present government’s term.

© Copyright – 2008 The Hindu

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