Requiem for the India-US nuclear deal?

17 March 2008
JUST days after the United Progressive Alliance launched what looked like a determined last-ditch effort to ram through the United States-India nuclear deal, the agreement seems ready to go into cold storage, if not oblivion. It’s almost certain to miss the US political timetable, which requires that the deal be sent to the Senate by May for ratification. After that, it would be near-impossible to pass it before the presidential election. This is a major victory for India’s Left parties and the peace movement. It’s a morale-booster for all those who questioned any special collaborative arrangement with the US. And it’s a slap in the face of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. This is likely to alter Congress party power equations. Irrespective of what happens in the UPA-Left joint committee, the deal cannot be resuscitated without a showdown with the Left. Withdrawal of the Left’s support will reduce the UPA to a minority. As Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee explicitly told Outlook, “a minority government cannot, need not, and should not, sign a major agreement.” For the UPA, the government’s survival takes priority over the deal. Apart from this rationale, there are powerful arguments against the deal. It militates against peace and nuclear disarmament. It will further distort the skewed global nuclear order and encourage other countries to cross the nuclear threshold. Yet, the government was preparing for a showdown with the Left after extending the tenure of Ambassador Ronen Sen in Washington. President Pratibha Patil’s mention of the deal in her parliament address, and the “populist” railway and general budgets, strengthened that impression. As did Singh’s undignified plea to “Bhishma Pitamah” (grand patriarch) Atal Behari Vajpayee to support it. Above all, there was hectic lobbying by US officials, Senators and businessmen, who hectoringly reminded the UPA that “time is of the essence”: “it’s now (the next few weeks), or never.” Defence Secretary Robert Gates, and Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher also did some hard-selling. They carried another message: Bush has done his best for deal. India should expect no more. Also, the first contracts from the deal should go to US companies. Finance minister P Chidambaram, commerce minister Kamal Nath, and science and technology minister Kapil Sibal, all planted stories about how the present moment gives India a unique chance to have the post-1974 sanctions against nuclear trade neutralised. To counter this lobby, Mukherjee gave two interviews clarifying that the government doesn’t want a confrontation with the Left, nor an early election. Mukherjee wouldn’t have done this without Sonia Gandhi’s nod. She has since said the election would be held next year. She’s loath to sever ties with the Left, not least because she may need the Left’s support after the elections. In the event the Congress’s more sober leaders prevailed over its pro-American enthusiasts, who thought that the budget, with its Rs 60,000-crore write-off of farmers’ loans, would tilt the scales decisively in its favour and against the Left. They were aided by Boucher who tried to allay fears about the 2006 Hyde Act, passed in the US, which enables the deal although India, a nuclear weapons-state, hasn’t signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Act mandates the US to cease nuclear cooperation if India conducts a nuclear test. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently said the government would work within the Act’s four corners. New Delhi maintains it’s not bound by the Hyde Act, only by the bilateral “123 agreement” with the US. The two, it claims, run in “parallel” and don’t impinge on each other. Boucher also said the same thing. True, some sections of the Act are non-binding. But when it comes to the crunch, that is, if India conducts a nuclear blast, the Act will prevail. The US will have to suspend nuclear cooperation with India — albeit after “consultations” on the test’s rationale. But the US won’t be bound by such consultations. The government won’t be able to satisfy the opposition on this, as also on the draft reportedly prepared after the recent fifth round of talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency on a safeguards (inspections) agreement. It’s not clear if the draft resolves the two contentious issues on which the talks were stuck: guarantees of fuel supplies, and the right to take “corrective action” in case these are disrupted. But the IAEA does not supply fuel. And granting India the right of “corrective action” would be controversial. To get around this, the IAEA secretariat proposed that these be included in the preamble to the safeguards text, or in a separate document. But neither of these has operative significance. The UPA probably won’t succeed in neutralising the opposition, especially the Left, with this formula. It’ll find it even more difficult to answer the critics who argue, as the peace movement does, that the deal will draw India into an unequal strategic partnership with the US at a time when the US is playing a disastrous global role by creating instability and insecurity, upgrading its nuclear weapons, and militarising space. An alliance with Washington will narrow India’s foreign policy options — as the Iran case vividly showed. The deal will admit India into the global Nuclear Club — on the side of those who run a system that India long called Atomic Apartheid. It’ll do nothing to reform the global nuclear order. Once it joins the Club, India will bid goodbye to its commitment, reiterated in the UPA’s National Common Minimum Programme, to fight for a nuclear weapons-free world. You don’t join an exclusive club, and then demand its dissolution! The deal will do nothing for energy security. On the contrary, it will promote nuclear power — an inappropriate, extremely hazardous, environmentally unsound and expensive form of energy. Nuclear power is a disaster-prone technology. Two-thirds of the world’s nuclear reactors are in the rich countries. Most of them will soon be phased out — and only a few new reactors are being ordered. India too must reject nuclear power while seriously promoting renewable sources like wind and solar.
Praful Bidwai, a fellow of the Transnational Institute, is a senior Indian journalist, political activist and widely published commentator. He is a co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament.