Manmohan's false nuclear move

18 July 2008
Whether or not the Manmohan Singh government survives the confidence vote next Tuesday, it will be remembered for its deviousness, stealth and deception in pushing the India-US nuclear deal without a democratic mandate, and by betraying the promise it made to its own Left supporters. Why, it even falsely claimed that the safeguards agreement signed with the International Atomic Energy Agency is "classified" from the Agency's standpoint—when the IAEA itself contradicted this! Finally, the government was shamed into making it public 10 hours after arms-control groups put it on their websites. The agreement has come under attack from three sets of people. The Right says it doesn't recognise India as a nuclear weapons-state (NWS) and compromises India's right to conduct more nuclear tests. The Left and Centrist parties say its text falls short of the commitments to Parliament made by Singh on uninterrupted fuel supply and India's right to take "corrective measures" if the supply is interrupted. Third, advocates of arms control and nuclear disarmament say it violates international non-proliferation norms and will encourage other states to cross the nuclear threshold and demand approval from the IAEA and the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers' Group—thus increasing the global nuclear danger. Who is right? The short answer is, the Right-wing critics are technically right, but politically wrong. The Centre-Left is procedurally right, but misses the disarmament angle altogether. And the arms-controllers and peaceniks are spot-on in arguing that the agreement is not in the interest of world peace, and eventually, India too. It's likely to face significant huddles at the IAEA Board of Governors and the NSG, and miss the tight timetable of the U.S. Congress. Singh, then, may end up antagonising much of the domestic political spectrum—and yet lose the deal. Singh promised Parliament that the agreement would be "India-specific" and contain fuel supply guarantees, and the rights to build a "strategic fuel reserve" and take "corrective measures" if supplies are suspended. However, the agreement doesn't contain these assurances in the main operative text; only in the preamble. And the preamble does not have the same significance or legal force as the operative text, which imposes restrictions that are incompatible with Singh's assurances. The "corrective measures" are nowhere defined. But it's clear that the purpose of the safeguards—inspections of civilian nuclear facilities—is to prevent diversion of nuclear materials to military use, and that once placed under safeguards, Indian facilities cannot be taken out. In reality, "corrective measures" may mean nothing. The Right is correct in arguing that the agreement doesn't bestow NWS status upon India. But realistically, that was never on the agenda. India is breaking into the global Nuclear Club without having signed a single agreement/treaty on nuclear arms-control or disarmament. Even the most sympathetic world powers won't legally grant it NWS status without India conceding something. India has conceded very, very little. It has only agreed to place only 14 of its 22 civilian reactors under safeguards. It can do what it likes with the remaining eight. Besides, it's ludicrous to argue that India needs to conduct more nuclear tests to develop an effective deterrent—even assuming that these horrible mass-destruction weapons are essential for security, which they aren't. India already has enough plutonium for 100 to 150 nuclear bombs—much more than the professed "credible minimum deterrent". This "minimum" is usually understood as a few dozen weapons. After all, how many bombs does it take to flatten five Pakistani or Chinese cities? The eight unsafeguarded reactors can produce another 40 bombs a year. India's dedicated military-nuclear facilities can add even more. All this makes for a huge arsenal, close in magnitude to China's. What the Right really wants is a hydrogen-bomb test and a super-ambitious, no-holds-barred, obscenely expensive nuclear arsenal, which makes sense only in a lunatic framework. The Centre-Left parties' procedural objections to the safeguards agreement are valid. But they don't touch its substance. The Left's real objection to the nuclear deal is that it will draw India into the US strategic orbit. This is a reasonable objection, but it doesn't deal with the specifics of the IAEA agreement, the Hyde Act, or the bilateral 123 agreement with the US. The Left also has failed to reiterate the most fundamental criticism of the deal, and of all the agreements and components it contains—namely, that it will legitimise nuclear weapons (both India's and America's), detract from the UPA's stated goal of fighting for global nuclear disarmament, and promote nuclear power. Nuclear power is an extremely costly, unacceptably unsafe and environmentally unsustainable form of energy. In 1998, the Left rightly opposed the Pokharan-II tests and demanded regional and global nuclear weapons abolition. But it has not returned to that agenda in the last two years, after initially opposing the deal in 2005 on disarmament grounds. Only the peaceniks are consistent on the disarmament issue. They argue that the deal will admit India into the Nuclear Club. The last thing a new entrant does is to demand a change in the Club's rules, not to speak of its abolition! At any rate, the safeguards agreement will face some resistance in the IAEA Board of Governors, some of whom are unhappy with the special exceptions its preamble it makes for India. Even if it goes through the IAEA, it's likely to confront strong objections in the NSG, which must grant India clean and unconditional exemption from its tough nuclear commerce rules. At least 10 NSG members are reportedly uncomfortable with it and may demand repeated meetings. However, the deal must clear these hurdles in record time if it's to be taken up by the U.S. Congress before it ends its term on September 26. According to many interpretations of the Hyde Act, Congress must be in 30 days of continuous session to consider it, and less than 40 days are left in the session. So the deal appears unlikely to win approval in Congress this year. That only leaves the next couple of weeks for both the IAEA and the NSG to clear the deal. It is improbable that this will happen.