In the jungle, if a carnivorous animal finds itself in the jaws of an iron trap, it will try and gnaw through the skin and bone of its immobilized leg. The animal gets away, minus a limb, but with its life and freedom intact. A wild elephant in chains on the other hand, lacking a mouthful of sharp teeth to free itself by chewing through its own shin and sinew, can only await a condign fate.
India is a meek-natured elephant all right, which until now had been an elusive non-proliferation target. America, the consummate shikari, has been scouting this animal for over 40 years now. It, finally, “bagged” the big game, herding it into the non-proliferation coral constructed by the Henry J. Hyde United States-India Promotion of Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation Act 2006.
A fortnight-long effort by the Manmohan Singh government to cover up the fact of a well-laid nuclear trap having sprung shut on India has come to naught. Having portrayed this agreement as something of a diplomatic coup, the Indian negotiators, the text of the agreement suggests, were outmanoeuvred by the professionals at the US state department. The latter happily traded vacuous language for Indian compliance with the Hyde Act and other US domestic laws on all the critical issues, including testing, reprocessing, assured fuel supply, and the right of return of US nuclear material. In case of the deal breaking down, however, the Americans minorly conceded India the right to “consultations” before the Hyde Act provisions are enforced. Some right!
A rule of thumb in judging the success or failure of any long- drawn-out negotiations is that if there is an inordinate amount of chest-thumping by one side, there is good reason to suspect that that side failed to protect its own interests. This, alas, is what happened with India in the 123 Agreement, the bilateral diplomatic instrument which, once approved by the US Congress, will enable the Hyde Act to be implemented in full.
Each of the 17 Articles in the 123 Agreement reveal a consistent pattern of the US sticking to the letter of the Hyde Act even as the Indians are fobbed off with verbiage. What is troubling is why the Indian government, which for nearly 60 years had deflected non-proliferation pressures and successfully protected and safeguarded the country’s dual-purpose nuclear programme, turned against it.
The answers lie in the subaltern thinking fuelling Indian nuclear policy. The self-confidence and an assertive nationalist stance reflective of an emergent, powerful, India is nowhere evident in an agreement that is supposed to re-define India’s place in the world. The core problem is the seriously debilitating conviction of the Prime Minister that India can attain great power rank the easy way—by piggybacking on the US. Here President George W. Bush’s rhetoric of helping India become a “major power” was the key. Nobody in the government stopped to consider whether this was feasible and what price the country would have to pay for it.
The US was not about to set up a competitor. But absent a strategic vision of his own to anchor policy and with his wilful misreading of the decisive quality of the premier great power attribute in the modern age, namely, a versatile thermonuclear arsenal, Manmohan Singh struck a beggar’s bargain—took whatever was offered him. And what the US offered India was a role as potential regional gendarme. Hardly impressive, considering it is at the expense of India’s naturally growing strategic presence and independent role in the extended region and Asia at large.
Indeed, Delhi was satisfied with only symbolic recognition as a nuclear weapon state. So much so, it unhesitatingly swallowed the line of India’s being on par with the United States as a country with “advanced nuclear technology” (the 18 July 2005, Joint Statement)—which it patently is not. Accepting this logic, Delhi found it hard to dispute the US government’s contention that, therefore, India had to do what the US and the other four nuclear weapon powers had done, i.e., forswear nuclear testing. But testing is the fulcrum of credible Indian deterrence and the country’s great power ambitions. More so because, unlike the US, Russian, Chinese, British and French nuclear weapons and delivery systems, the bulk of the Indian “boosted fission” and hydrogen weapon designs and missiles are inadequately tested, unproven and, hence, unreliable. And, without further testing, India will be saddled permanently with a hollow deterrent—more military liability than political asset.
A nuclear-armed India has deliberately and diplomatically been reduced, courtesy Manmohan Singh the mahout, to the war elephant of yore—all size, finery, and little military substance and with no ability worth the name to break the non-proliferation chains and to strike out on an independent great power course. What Delhi is left with is a yen for trumpeting that is all noise signifying nothing.
(Bharat Karnad is professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, and author of Nuclear Weapons & Indian Security.)
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