As the United Progressive Alliance-Left joint committee on the US-India nuclear deal meets today, it’s highly unlikely that the Left will agree to any further negotiation on the agreement. Whether or not this meeting substantively discusses the safeguards (inspections) agreement drafted with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Left’s veto will probably stand.
Short of an early election, the deal is dead for all intents and purposes, at least for now. Going by Pranab Mukherjee’s recent interviews, and Sonia Gandhi’s call to the Congress to prepare for an election next year, the party’s leadership seems loath to reducing its government to a minority—and thus risk losing the deal too. Mukherjee was explicit: The Congress won’t sacrifice the government or hold mid-term elections; and “a minority government cannot, need not and should not sign a major agreement”.
Thus, short of the unlikely event of Manmohan Singh, backed by P. Chidambaram, Kamal Nath and Kapil Sibal, prevailing over Gandhi and other more cautious leaders, the deal won’t be passed during George W. Bush’s presidential tenure. If a Democrat succeeds Bush, it might be resuscitated, but probably on terms that its opponents consider more unfavourable than its present avatar. Ironically, that would only further polarize domestic opinion on a unique arrangement that’s supposed to integrate India into the global nuclear order and harmonize its nuclear pursuits with it.
At any rate, if the deal dies, it’ll be more for reasons of political expediency than its intrinsic merits/demerits. This is especially unfortunate because the deal’s content was misrepresented and its effect grossly distorted in the Indian debate.
The deal’s supporters argue that it would end the “unfair” sanctions India has faced since its 1974 Pokharan-I test, open new technology-access avenues, seal a close strategic alliance with the US, raise India’s world stature and promote nuclear power—and hence, “energy security”. The price—lesser treatment than that accorded to the nuclear weapon-states, reduced scope of US-India nuclear trade, and constraints imposed by the Hyde Act—would be fairly low.
The deal’s opponents are more divided, although most claim it would reduce India’s sovereign control over, or cap, its nuclear arsenal. The Left emphasizes the deal’s link to the 2005 India-US defence framework and says it’ll make India Washington’s “junior partner”. The Right holds that India won’t have a world-class deterrent because the deal will prevent a hydrogen bomb test.
The Right strongly supports the nuclear-power-equals-energy-security argument. The Left is ambivalent. The Right craves a closer relationship with the US. The Left detests one. Both hold that the Hyde Act imposes unreasonable restrictions and will prevail over last year’s bilateral “123 agreement”.
The supporters are profoundly mistaken in arguing that India developed its nuclear technology indigenously, and was “unfairly” punished for the Pokharan-I blast. India has borrowed or bought nuclear equipment, material and technology from numerous sources, including the US, UK, France, USSR/Russia, Canada, Germany, and even China. India cheated on its agreements with the US and Canada to use the Cirus reactor—which they helped build—only for “peaceful purposes”. India extracted the Pokharan-I bomb-fuel from Cirus. (Hence, the “peaceful” nuclear explosion.)
The proponents are equally wrong in underrating the constraints that an alliance with Washington would impose on India’s foreign and strategic policy options (witness India’s messy Iran policy), and attribute “prestige” to mass-destruction weapons. India will also come under pressure to join the US-led security arrangements. All this will lower India’s global stature as an independent state. Some sections of the Hyde Act are non-binding, but those mandating cessation of cooperation will prevail if India tests.
The proponents are wrong to say nuclear power is economical, safe, and environmentally sound. It’s super-expensive despite subsidies. An MIT study says its unit costs in the US are 40-60% higher than for coal/gas-based power. Power from new Indian nuclear plants will cost Rs3.50-plus. Coal-based Sasan will deliver it for Rs1.20. Worse, nuclear power is accident-prone, unacceptably hazardous, and leaves radioactive wastes that remain dangerous for millennia.
Many of the deal’s opponents are also mistaken in arguing that it’ll reduce/cap India’s nuclear arsenal/fissile material production. India will only subject 14 of its 22 operating/planned power reactors to inspections. The rest can annually yield 200kg of plutonium—enough for 40 bombs, in addition to the existing 100-150, and way beyond the professed “minimum deterrent”.
India can also stockpile unlimited amounts of weapons-grade material in its military-nuclear and other unsafeguarded facilities, including the “Dhruva” and prototype fast-breeder reactors. Besides, India can dedicate scarce domestic uranium exclusively to weapons. Again, India can live with the Hyde Act’s constraints. They’re a small price to pay if you want your weapons normalized and expanded, while resuming global nuclear commerce.
The honest, rational, argument against the deal is that it legitimizes nuclear weapons (India’s and the US’), weakens the global non-proliferation norm, unfairly favours India because it’s Washington’s friend, consolidates an unhealthy, unequal India-US relationship, and promotes the wrong kind of energy.
The deal will admit India into the global nuclear club—on the side of those who run a system that India long condemned as atomic apartheid. Once it joins the club, India will bid goodbye to its commitment, reiterated in the UPA’s Common Minimum Programme, to fight for global nuclear disarmament. You don’t join an exclusive club, and then demand its dissolution! The deal will detract from a principled commitment to a peaceful, equitable world order free of the scourge of nuclear weapons.
Praful Bidwai is a political commentator and an independent nuclear affairs analyst. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org