Now, why is it not surprising — the news of President George W. Bush’s declaration to the US Congress that he considers provisions in the 123 Agreement, such as Article 5(6) on reliable fuel supply for reactors sold to India, not “legally binding”, constituting merely “political commitments”? Because
some of us (alas, too few to make a difference) have been saying exactly this over the last three-odd years, ever since Prime Minister Manmohan Singh returned from Washington in July 2005 wholly pleased with himself for obtaining what he considered a breakthrough accord. Despite the evidence of the primacy of its domestic laws in the shaping of America’s foreign policy, the Indian government clings to the belief that the 123 Agreement is decisive and the 2006 Hyde Act is of little account. The irony, of course, is that having invested so much of his personal credibility (for he has no political capital worth speaking of) in this horribly naïve and half-cocked venture, Singh finds it impossible to back out of the nuclear deal. Sonia Gandhi, Singh’s principal support in the Congress party and the government, can end this dangerous fandango but, instead, has jumped onto the bandwagon.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Let us be very clear that ending the nuclear deal will have no repercussion whatsoever (except on the “commission agents” in the ruling coalition and in trade and industry, who will be denied the huge payoffs from the purchase of exorbitantly priced foreign reactors). Close military links and strategic cooperation between the two countries will in no way be affected by the ditching of this misbegotten nuclear deal. It may be recalled that the then defence minister Pranab Mukherjee’s signing the defense cooperation framework agreement on 28 June 2005 preceded the joint statement initiating the nuclear deal. With his misplaced sense of priorities and a singularly fanciful take on imported reactors as the panacea for the energy ills of the country, Singh proceeded, in effect, to try and leverage Pentagon’s yearning for the mutual logistics support agreement and the communications interoperability and security memorandum of agreement with India to get the best possible nuclear deal. In this, he was unsuccessful, the Indian negotiating team failing to blunt the nonproliferation thrust of the US policy geared to keeping India below the credible thermonuclear weapons threshold by insisting on the non-testing clause.
New Delhi now hopes to exploit the US’ fear of losing reactor sales by hinting at “first-mover advantage” deals with France and Russia. This is, however, to presume that when (not if) New Delhi tests, Paris and Moscow will maintain fuel supply for its reactors in the face of US pressure to cease and desist. But on fuel supply for Tarapur, for instance, France and Russia ultimately toed the US line.
Notwithstanding these negatives, if power plants are imported, then reliable fuel supply will be hostage to India’s “good behaviour”, which will be ensured by the economic necessity to keep these inordinately expensive reactors from becoming “non-performing” assets. In the event, the best thing that can happen for India is for the US Congress to put off approving the deal. The change of governments in both the capitals in the new year will mean a whole new ball game and a chance for the restoration of the status quo ante.
The consequences of even a bad treaty would be manageable if the ministry of external affairs (MEA) treated the international agreements it signs as the US state department and the Chinese zhongnanhai (foreign office) do — as mere pieces of paper, to be violated just so national interest is served. Whence, despite their nonproliferation obligations, the US winked at Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear weaponization and Beijing transferred nuclear weapon designs, material and expertise to Islamabad and continues with its military nuclear links.
It is hard realpolitik-driven foreign-military policy India should emulate.
Alas, MEA’s approach is best reflected in the advice to the critics by a stalwart diplomat, Arundhati Ghose, to look at the “spirit”, and not the “letter”, of the nuclear agreement with the US when, in fact, Washington respects neither the spirit nor the letter of any accord unless it suits its immediate purpose. It reinforces the view of Indian foreign-military policy and diplomacy being of the suckers, by the suckers, for the saps!
The larger issue is the urgent need for a constitutional amendment with retroactive effect, requiring the executive to bring any treaty it signs before the Lok Sabha for ratification by a two-thirds vote. The freedom enjoyed by a prime minister in the Westminster system to commit to treaties derives from the “royal prerogative” of an absolute monarch. The Indian prime minister is not a sovereign who is free to exercise his whim, push through a deal injurious of the national interest, drum up a simple majority in Parliament through devious means as was done on 22 July and then, in cahoots with a complicit media, claim popular support for it.
Bharat Karnad is professor at the Centre for Policy Research and author of India’s Nuclear Policy (forthcoming). Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org