A nuclear King Canute

A nuclear King Canute
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First Published: Thu, Jun 19 2008. 02 29 AM IST

Photo by: Alex Brandon/AP
Photo by: Alex Brandon/AP
Updated: Thu, Jun 19 2008. 02 29 AM IST
Considering the banner headlines on the US presidential nomination race in Indian newspapers, one would think Barack Obama was in the race for power in India! Relations with the US are, in fact, headed for a downturn should he get elected US president, come November. John McCain is an uninspiring alternative, but at least he talks of “a league of democracies” in which India is bound to feature prominently, and not non-proliferation measures that will end up hurting India that Obama is set to pursue. As far as India is concerned, the main problem with Obama is precisely his non-proliferation stance. He is for preventing states from crossing the weapons threshold and is bent on making an example of India (and Pakistan) for obtaining these armaments; verily a latter day King Canute ordering the nuclear tide to roll back!
Photo by: Alex Brandon/AP
But Obama is a mainstream Democratic Party liberal who is easily spooked by nuclear weapons in other than American hands, who swears by the defunct and damaging 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and is intolerant of countries emulating the five (the US, Russia, China, the UK and France) so-called “NPT-recognized” nuclear weapon states. These countries would rather that attention were paid to what they said on disarmament instead of on what they have done in that area, which is nothing. In the India-shackling task, the Indian ruling class’ high-minded, if appallingly naïve, hankering for nuclear disarmament—reflected, for instance, in the international conference on a nuclear weapons-free world hosted by the ministry of external affairs-run Indian Council of World Affairs on 9-10 June—becomes the lever for the NPT-5 to manipulate Indian policy. This is an inversion of Jawaharlal Nehru’s realpolitik use of the disarmament issue in the 1950s to put the West on the defensive.
Specifically, a Democratic Party president will mean the return to power of the non-proliferation ideologues such as Strobe Talbott, Robert J. Einhorn and their ilk, who are keen to see India, nuclear-wise, tied hand and foot, than adjust to a world of many nuclear weapon powers. The US senator from Illinois and presidential candidate, prompted by these people, inserted the “Obama Amendment” into the 2006 Hyde Act—the US law enabling civil nuclear cooperation between India and the US. It mandates that, at any given time, any imported nuclear power plant will be allowed to stock up only just enough fuel to meet its “operational requirements”, not an ounce more of enriched uranium. The slack the George W. Bush administration tried to build into the legislation permitting India to build up a stockpile of low-enriched uranium to last the lifetime of each imported reactor, thereby addressing Indian fears of arbitrary fuel cutoff (not that this made any material difference to an inherently bad deal), this amendment pointedly took away. Other than the ban on testing imposed by the Hyde Act, which will ensure India forever remains a small, inconsequential, nuclear weapon state, and that its weapon technology wastes away over time, this amendment amounts to guaranteeing this country passes quickly into the ranks of an energy dependency as well, because fuel supply can be severed at the first hint of India not hewing to the American line on some or the other major foreign, economic and military policy line.
Worse, the country will be stuck with a huge dead investment in the form of a host of non-functional reactors to add to our other woes. So, instead of bemoaning energy shortfalls and peddling a nuclear deal manifestly hurtful of the national security interest as a panacea, why has Manmohan Singh not fast-tracked indigenous uranium mining operations and invested in indigenous INDU/CANDU reactors?
If the Congress-led coalition government and large parts of the Indian strategic community are acting as if these very real threats to the country’s strategic and energy independence are so much ephemera, then Obama and others in the West can hardly be blamed for exploiting the situation and encouraging Indians to put the shackles on a nuclearized India. Indian history in any case is replete with instances of foreign powers being helped to realize their nefarious designs by Indian insiders and collaborators. The misbegotten nuclear deal is only the latest example of this sad and debilitating historical reality.
If, despite its inability to muster even a bare majority in Parliament, the present regime pushes this deal through at the eleventh hour, as is being rumoured, we should be aware of what awaits India in an Obama presidency. The US has traditionally been extremely legalistic in interpreting international agreements, especially regarding obligations undertaken by other countries (with little or no sanctity being accorded its own treaty commitments, to wit, the 1963 Tarapur Agreement requiring Washington to uninterruptedly provide the American-supplied reactor with fuel for its lifetime, which was broken with impunity). With Obama, a Harvard-trained lawyer, at the helm, Washington can be expected to realize the Hyde Act in its minutiae. This will leave New Delhi with no room for manoeuvre or for escape from the punitive provisions of this Act—the irrelevant 123 Agreement or no 123 Agreement.
Bharat Karnad is the author of India’s Nuclear Policy (forthcoming). Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Jun 19 2008. 02 29 AM IST