There is consternation all round over the much ballyhooed deal for “civil nuclear cooperation” with the US expiring without notice. The anger and frustration of Nicholas Burns, the American under-secretary of state and lead negotiator and his colleagues in Washington, vented in an orchestrated fashion in interviews to leading western newspapers—USA Today and the Financial Times—are a last-gasp attempt—mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, if you will—to revive the deal by pressuring the Manmohan Singh government into signing a manifestly unfavourable ‘123’ Agreement.
There was, however, nothing sudden about this development. Even though in the period leading up to its demise, hopeful prognoses by officials and technology-wise ignorant and international power politics-wise innocent commentaries appeared, seeking to mould public opinion and hasten India into a bad bargain. They made the deal appear to be a boon India would be foolish to reject. The question is why official circles entertained such optimism when evidence was available from before the time the joint statement was signed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George W. Bush on 18 July 2005, that there was something seriously wrong with this exercise to paper over the nonproliferation gorge separating the two countries.
The Indian government expected in the wake of the 1998 tests, that the US would follow the dictates of realism and accord India de facto and de jure status as a nuclear weapon state by suitably amending the 1967 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) at the centre of the global nonproliferation order that Washington presides over. Ironically, the Indian nuclear programme had reached the weapons threshold by 1964 when the indigenous plutonium reprocessing plant went on stream. Except, characteristically, Delhi dithered on weaponizing when the humiliating defeat in the Himalayan War with China in 1962 and Beijing’s nuclear test in October 1964 offered ample military justification for doing so. It cost the country dear. Between then and 1974 when India first tested, the US had firmed up the NPT regime which arbitrarily defined a nuclear weapon state as any country that had tested before the NPT became law.
This treaty, conceived earlier in that decade, was aimed expressly to prevent President John F. Kennedy’s “nightmare” featuring “20-30” nuclear weapons states from becoming reality. Nonproliferation has, ever since, been a central pillar of American foreign policy. The Manmohan Singh government nevertheless thought it could persuade President Bush to demolish this edifice. It learned nothing from the National Democratic Alliance government’s experience, when Jaswant Singh, seeking some of the same things, such as civil nuclear cooperation and access to advanced technology, reached an impasse in the “strategic dialogue” with Strobe Talbott, because both sides sensed little give on the part of the other on the inelastic US demand for “freeze, cap, rollback” of the Indian nuclear programme. The US objective is the same.
But the prospects of nuclear technology and trade benefits, Manmohan Singh felt would win the deal overwhelming public support at home. It led to the nuclear establishment—the principal Indian stakeholder—being excluded from the negotiation on the Joint Statement, which made India’s non-testing the lynchpin of any “nuclear cooperation”. This was done with the full knowledge that without further testing, India would never obtain reliable nuclear and thermonuclear armaments. Worse, he assumed that the joint statement was the prime “enabler”, not the new US domestic law—the Hyde Act enacted in December 2006! So egregiously wrong an assessment of the American system would have shamed a junior Foreign Office staffer, except it was the PM’s special envoy and former foreign secretary, Shyam Saran, who misled the public with this contention. Indeed, the Hyde Act, reflecting the traditional US nonproliferation concerns, was summarily dismissed by Manmohan Singh’s team as transgressing the provisions in the joint statement and, therefore, irrelevant to negotiating the nuclear deal.
The Prime Minister believed he could (1) negotiate India-friendly clauses relating to testing, reprocessing, etc. in the 123 Agreement, disregarding the requirements of the Hyde Act; (2) force the Trombay establishment to swallow any deal howsoever injurious it may be to national security, strategic independence and the integrity of the country’s nuclear programme; (3) sell the deal to Parliament and the people as a panacea for the expected energy shortfall in the country, and (4) swear by the joint statement while dissembling on principles such as parity of treatment with the US in nuclear matters contained in it, but ignored by the Hyde Act.
Manmohan Singh was wrong on all these counts and his government now finds itself treading water. It is divided over whether to risk accepting American terms or to cut its losses and junk the deal. Prudence should dictate the latter choice. In which case, attempts will be made to portray Singh as heroically defeating the US efforts at breaching India’s nuclear ramparts!
Bharat Karnad is professor at the Centre for Policy Research and author of Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security, now in its second edition. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org