New Delhi: As National Security Adviser in the National Democratic Alliance government and Principal Secretary to former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, Brajesh Mishra practically ran India’s foreign and domestic policies from 1998 to 2004, when the NDA lost power to the Congress-led UPA alliance. Under Mishra’s watch, India began preliminary talks on a nuclear deal with the US. But as the BJP, along with the Left parties, have mounted criticism over the Indo-US nuclear deal, Mishra’s lone, dissenting voice has struck a fresh chord. In this interview Mint’s Diplomatic Affairs editor Jyoti Malhotra, Mishra refused to answer any questions on the political criticism of the deal.
/Content/Videos/2008-07-16/1507 Brijash Mishra INTERVIEW_MINT_TV.flv
The Indo-US nuclear deal is in the middle of a huge controversy. When you were National Security Adviser in the NDA government, you started negotiations on a similar deal. Tell us about it.
There were no negotiations on any deal as such, the negotiations were only about lifting of sanctions in relation to dual use high technology items. By that time you might remember the fresh sanctions imposed against India after the Pokharan tests had been lifted. What were still in force were the 1974 sanctions, put into place after the first nuclear explosion. And that is what led eventually to the Next Stage in Strategic Partnership, a phased approach to cooperation with India. Perhaps at the end of Phase 3, some years later, there could be nuclear cooperation. But there was no deal as such. What happened between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Bush (on the nuclear deal) was entirely different. This was a quantum jump in relations and therefore, it attracted much more notice than our phased approach in the NSSP.
So do you think this is a good deal?
Pragmatic view: Brajesh Mishra believes that there will not be any renegotiation over the nuclear agreement with the US as both the presidential candidates are not in favour of changes in the deal. (Photograph by Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint)
In my view after the assurances that have been given at the highest level, with regard to India’s strategic programme, I think the deal is fine, let us go through with it.
Why do you think it is a good deal?
Well, let us go back to the sanctions on dual use and high technology items. Now unless those sanctions are waived, not only by the US, but also by the Nuclear Suppliers Group, you will not be able to have international cooperation in nuclear energy. The French have said they can’t go ahead although they want to, the Russians have said we will do the two nuclear plants in Kudamkulam but not any more until the NSG gives an exemption in relation to India. So if we don’t have this deal, we wont get the exemption from the NSG. Our civil nuclear programme will continue to suffer. I was told that our civilian plants are operating at 40 per cent capacity because of shortage of uranium. So even your civil nuclear programme, at least for 7-8 years, will suffer very badly. Now peple say we have enough uranium, but it is all below the ground, and there are problems. In Meghalaya, the tribes which own the land refuse to part with it. In Karnataka and Jhakhand, there are other problems. In the time it takes for your own uranium to be available, what will happen to your plants?
Is this deal only about nuclear energy, or is it more than that?
Since the exception will be for India, it shows the acceptance of India in the global scheme.
Does that mean that India is a de facto nuclear weapons power?
That is clear from the draft safeguards agreement with the IAEA which talks about India’s military nuclear programme. That you are a nuclear weapons state has been accepted. What cannot be done is an amendment of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to include India. That would create a lot of problems, they’re not going to do that. But de facto you are there, and your nuclear weapons programme will not affect your civil nuclear programme.
Does this also give India a bigger profile? Some people have said that the nuclear architecture conceived after the World War II at Yalta now comes to an end.
Its not only about nuclear energy, if India wants to be at the high table, if you want to be a member of the UN Security Council, then you have to go along with the international community on various matters, of course without losing your sovereignty. But your ambition to become an important global player, is predicated on your cooperation with the international community.
So it might be easier now for India to get a permanent seat in the UN Security Council?
Certainly if we don’t go through with this deal, then people are going to say, the government gave assurances, signed an agreement with the Americans and then went back upon it. How can you trust a country like that to become a member of the Security Council? It’s very clear, that your place at the high table, at least for the time being, is linked to this.
If you were the National Security Adviser today, as you were in the NDA government (till 2004), would you go ahead with this deal?
Of course, I would. They didn’t offer it to us, but I would.
There are reports that in your negotiations with the Americans, you did offer between 14 and 18 reactors to be put under international safeguards?
No, that is wrong. I had said a “couple” of reactors, and all future reactors, not those still under construction such as the fast-breeders.
Why is there so much criticism today, by political parties such as the Left and the BJP as well as by several nuclear scientists?
I am not going to comment on why the political parties are saying what they are. But so far as the scientists are concerned, it is clear that the chairman of the atomic energy commission, Dr Anil Kakodkar, is hundred per cent in favour of this. Now he’s not going to give up his independence in nuclear matters. There are other scientists who are also in favour. Of course there are three or four who are in opposition. But that is normal in a democracy, it is good to have criticism because it keeps the government on its toes. And it has led, in my mind, to a very good agreement with the US, which wouldn’t have happened if there was no criticism from the scientists and others. The government wouldn’t have cared so much. And it has also led to a good safeguards agreement.
So what you started at Pokharan, in 1998, do you think what is happening today, ten years later in 2008, is a culmination of that?
It is a culmination in the sense that you are now accepted as a nuclear weapons state, if the agreement goes through, of what we started in 1998.
You know China very well, you’ve served there. The Chinese are said to be critical of this deal, why?
I think they are keeping their options open. But it is my belief that at the end of the day they will not oppose the exception being given to India, in the NSG.
Why not? Isn’t China concerned about India as a rising power?
Just as China is a big rising power in Asia, so is India, that is a fact. If the Chinese were to say that we do not agree, then it immediately brings about a very angry relationship between India and China, which is in neither interest. So I don’t think they will oppose it at the NSG. If everybody agrees, they will go along with it.
I just wanted to take you back to 1998, after the nuclear tests, when you wrote to the Americans referring to the Chinese as one of the reasons for going nuclear. There was a lot of criticism of that..
What we said was that we have a nuclear weapons state in the north which has helped another nuclear weapons state, that the nuclear environment in our part of the world was dangerous for India, which is why India was forced to undertake the tests and weaponise the programme. This is a fact. Nobody has denied that China helped Pakistan to become a nuclear weapons state. Russia, like China and Pakistan, were all nuclear weapons states. What was the nuclear environment we were living in? We mentioned this in the letter, not in order to extract anti-Chinese sentiment in the US. They have their own relationship with China.
But the Chinese came down very heavily on India.
Yes, but one year later, (then Foreign minister) Jaswant Singh was in China, in June 1999, being received by the Chinese. These are temporary things.
But you don’t think the Chinese will openly come out against India’s de facto nuclear weapon status?
My belief is that the Chinese will not oppose an exemption by the NSG and in the IAEA.
In 1998, the Left parties were critical of the Pokharan tests.
So was the Congress party.
So are you saying that the Congress has moved 180 degrees from its earlier position?
Obviously they have. The Left was criticizing us, the Congress was criticizing us, I think Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made critical statements. (The erstwhile Congress leader) Mr Natwar Singh was going around saying that we congratulate the scientists, but not the government. But it was a political position.
So why has the Congress shifted today?
How can they go back on the nuclear tests? Also at that time, perhaps many people did not know, it was Rajiv Gandhi who had ordered the weaponisation of India’s nuclear weapons programme. I am sure Natwar Singh didn’t know. I am sure Dr Manmohan Singh didn’t know. Now they know that this is what happened.
So the BJP government advanced the programme that Rajiv Gandhi began and today, the Congress led government is advancing your programme?
Obviously. You see, weaponisation was ordered by Rajiv Gandhi, but there was no testing. You cant have a weapons programme without testing. Mrs Indira Gandhi, after the 1974 test, had wanted to do another test when she came back to power in 1980, then Narasimha Rao wanted to do a test but he was stopped by the Americans. We said no, we will go ahead, because we know that unless the reliability of your weapon is proven, who is going to accept it?
So would you say that the criticism by the Left and the Congress in 1998, and today’s criticism by political parties is basically motivated by political compulsion?
Of course. These are political compulsions.
So this is politics vs the national interest?
I am absolutely sure in my mind that those who are criticizing this deal do have the national interest in mind, but they see it in a different way.
On Bush, why is he interested in doing this for India?
Since the second term of president Clinton, after the Kargil war, the talks between Jaswant Singh and Strobe Talbott and Clinton’s visit to Delhi, the relationship had become quite good. The Clinton and Bush administrations recognized the importance of India.
Do you think they wanted India to take on a rising and increasingly powerful China?
I don’t think so at all, because I don’t believe that the US wants to confront China. And there is no question of India confronting China. We are geographical neighbours. We may have problems, we may have rivalries, but no government in India will ever confront China at the behest of the US.
If this deal doesn’t go through now, can it be renegotiated after the presidential elections in the US?
Renegotiation is not possible, because as Mr Barack Obama has said he doesn’t want any changes in this deal, he will accept it only as it is today. Even if John McCain becomes president, there will be no re-negotiation of the deal.
If the new US president wants to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), what impact will it have on India?
In my view, India will have no option but to sign it. The UK, France and Russia have already signed and ratified the CTBT. China and US have signed, but not ratified. If the US ratifies it, then China will ratify, and the rest of the world will also ratify. How can India remain outside?