Home / Politics / News /  De facto, not de jure -- India is the world’s sixth nuclear power

Mumbai-born Ashley Tellis is widely considered a part of the brains trust of the US foreign policy establishment. A senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an adviser to the US state department as well as to Republican presidential candidate John McCain, Tellis has been very closely involved with pushing through the Indo-US nuclear deal, both when it was first floated during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government and currently with the Manmohan Singh-led government. Edited excerpts from an interview with him on Friday, the day before the US House of Representatives signed off on the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal:

What’s the worst case and the best case scenario for the Indo-US nuclear deal?

I think at the US end there’s only good news. The House is expected to vote on the Bill sometime today (Friday) in the US and I expect once that happens it will be reported to the Senate. I think we will cross that hurdle before Congress adjourns. So I am very optimistic about it.

Click here to watch part I of video


So we are going to have a 123 agreement?


What does the Indo-US nuclear agreement really mean for India?

I would say it means three things. (One) It is a changing of a very powerful set of global rules to accommodate India; it is a recognition of India’s responsibility and its rising capabilities; and the importance of the US-India partnership. Two, it gives India access to something it has never had for the last 30-odd years, and that is nuclear energy cooperation with a whole range of countries, which is going to be vital if India is going to meet its developmental goals. The third is more symbolic, in that it means the end of the nuclear apartheid regime to use (former external affairs

Click here to watch part II of video


minister) Jaswant Singh’s famous phrase, that kept India out of the group of elite countries. I think it is truly a transformative event and when historians write about in the coming decades, I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that this will have been one of those turning points in India’s march towards becoming a great power.

This new world order that you are outlining — what is in it for the US?

That is a hard question to answer satisfactorily, because the honest answer is that in part, it depended greatly on the President’s (George W. Bush) own instincts. It’s an unsatisfying answer because it’s a complex policy

question. But the President had an instinct about India and a desire to make this relationship work, to put it on new foundations and he drove this initiative really as an act of will… It starts actually not in 2005, but goes back to his first term...

He didn’t even know India before he became president and now he wants India to be part of this new game.

I think I would flag both the personal and the strategic, and with the personal something happened, it triggered an interest in India...

Advantage all: With the US House of Representatives endorsing the 123 Agreement, Ashley Tellis says India is now integrated into the international system, and everybody will have an interest in doing business with it. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint

What happened?

Well as (former US ambassador to India) Bob Blackwill tells the story, it was his (Bush’s) experience with Indian Americans in Texas as Governor. As Blackwill puts it, Bush said, “Oh my God, here is a group of people so successful, so dedicated, so evocative of the American dream, then there are a billion of them somewhere in another part of the world; this is a country that we need to reach out to and have a new relationship with". That’s the way Bob paraphrases the story. But I think there is a personal element without which this would not have been possible. But the personal must be embedded in a strategic context. And the strategic context is that India’s capabilities are now changing. For the first time, India is becoming a power of consequence, and as we look at the international system, it becomes absolutely critical for India to have a relationship with the US, and for the US to have a new relationship with India. This is part of a transforming world order which we want to shape to our advantage.

It has been said that the US is doing this to contain China. Do you buy that?

Not at all, I think that is a very simplistic notion. We are of course concerned about China, as is India. But the secret to making certain that China is integrated in the global order is not to contain it; the secret to making certain that it is integrated acceptably is to create an environment whereby China has the incentives to do the right thing rather than the wrong thing.

So why did the Chinese try and block the deal at the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) right till the bitter end, until George Bush and Condoleezza Rice spoke to them and told them not to?

Because I think they see this deal as the spearhead of a polite containment. I think this is a mistaken perception on their part, but that is the perception from which they have operated. Infact there is an irony to this. The Sino-Indian relationship has improved substantially in the last few years because of the fear that the US-India relationship was growing. So I think it was all the more paradoxical that at the NSG they decided to draw a line in the sand…

And made what I think, really, was a strategic mistake.

You don’t think this is an anti-Chinese deal, but what does it give India? India doesn’t really become the sixth nuclear power in the world, does it?

Well, it does. Not in a legal sense of course. Not de jure, but de facto. Because India has the one privilege that the P-5 states have, that it can access civilian nuclear cooperation from the international community without any constraints on its civilian nuclear programme. It can continue to build weapons, it can continue to maintain its weapons, it can expand its inventory, if it so chooses. And this is a privilege that is really accorded only to five countries, and India is the sixth country with this privilege.

There has been a lot of criticism in the Indian press that George Bush has only made a political commitment and not a legal one on accessing sensitive technology and civilian nuclear commitment. Do you have a comment on this?

I think this is really an unfortunate dichotomy. It should never have been a part of the President’s transmittal letter. One day, I guess, people will look back and see it as one of those accidents of history.

It should not have been in the letter?

I don’t think it should have been in the letter, because its not the way the President sees it. And when undersecretary William Burns testified before Congress, he made it a point to assert that it was an unhelpful distinction because a political commitment is fundamentally a legal commitment. When the President of the US says he is committed to doing something, he’s representing the United States of America…

Are you saying the bureaucracy within the US administration did this?

I think there is an excessively loyal way of reading the issue. The real point is this : the President makes a political commitment. He puts the best face, the full credibility of the US behind that commitment.

That commitment has been ratified now by Congress twice, it’s been ratified in the Hyde Act, it is on the cusp of being ratified in the 123 Agreement (Editor’s note: it was on Saturday).

We are all agreed about the fundamentals. India is going to be integrated into the new global order; India will be allowed to keep its weapons despite this integration and the international community is invited to cooperate with India, not just the US. And on these three fundamentals, the government of India, the President of the US and the government of the US are all agreed.

You have elections coming up; you will have a new president. Will all future presidents also have to abide by Bush’s political commitment?

Yes, because once we open the doors, it will be impossible to shut them.

But they’re not bound to do this, are they?

No one is bound to do anything. But you must realize the reality of things. The agreement does not compel the US to do anything; it does not compel India to do anything. But the reality is that now that India is integrated into the international system, everybody will have an interest in doing business with India. Why would the US deny itself the benefits that come from the very deal that it has proposed and expended a lot of political capital.

You are saying that once the business starts flowing, why would the Americans deny themselves?

Absolutely. And why would the US government, having gone through all the trouble to amend US law, to make this happen, suddenly take a step back and say, “We’re not going to continue cooperation with India"? It just does not make sense.

So once the dollars and the big bucks start flowing, no US president is going to be able to put a stop to this.

I think that is true, but that is only half the answer. The other half is the strategic half. There is an important interest the US has in deepening this relationship. We don’t want to go back to the age of sine wave oscillations, where we had ups and downs, followed by ups and downs. We’ve made the effort, we’ve changed the rules of the game, there’s no looking back.

There’s a lot of talk about the 126 fighter aircraft deal that two US companies are also bidding for. Could there be a quid pro quo?

I don’t think so, because the IAF (Indian Air Force), which is the evaluator of these planes, will make the decision based on technical choices. The Indian government will look at costs, they will look at life cycle costs, they will look at the issue of the strategic reliability of suppliers and they will look at the quality of airplanes. And when you triangulate these issues, I think the US has a very distinct advantage.

In a few months, you could have a Democrat president in the White House. Democrats are traditionally more in favour of the non-proliferation agenda, human rights… Would they throw a spanner in the works in the implementation of the nuclear deal?

I fear that could be a possibility, because there is a very large group of people within the Democrat party who were very unenthusiastic about this deal. In fairness to them, there are very prominent Democrats who supported it, like (former US assistant secretary of state) Rick Inderfurth who came out very early, (former US ambassador to India) Frank Wisner would be another, (Democrat vice-presidential candidate) Joseph Biden is a third. But the party as a whole has had anxiety about this deal. But I would be delighted to be proved wrong because the long-term requirement for its success is that this be bipartisan.

What of the future; do you think a Security Council seat for India is next?

I think it is inevitable (but) I don’t know if it’s the very next thing one can do. All institutions of international governance have to reflect the power structures of the day, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that India is now a major global power and you cannot have an international system that doesn’t reflect that.

A couple of questions on the Indian debate. The Bush administration worked very closely with the previous Vajpayee government. Were you disappointed that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) opposed the deal tooth and nail?

I was, actually, because I think there were many in the BJP who saw the strategic wisdom of this (deal).

I think the (former) prime minister Mr Vajpayee himself had a very strong sense that this was a good thing for India. And I see that perfectly reflected in the views of (former national security adviser) Brajesh Mishra, who has come out in very clear support, very openly. I think there are members within the BJP who were embarrassed by their party’s strong opposition.

L.K. Advani, for instance? You must have talked to him…

I think Mr Advani was inclined to be favourable, but I am not sure whether he was convinced by all the reservations and I think the role played by his own party was probably influential in pushing him to what he ended up with.

Let’s talk about Pakistan. The US is a key partner of Pakistan. Do you think the de-hyphenation of India-Pakistan where relations with the US are concerned is finally complete?

I think so. If there is a hyphenation, it is actually the opposite of what was originally meant. People look at India as a success story, people look at Pakistan as a state at risk. So if it’s a hyphenation, it is a hyphenation of contrast, it’s not a hyphenation of compatibility.

Would you call Pakistan a failing state?

I don’t think it’s a failing state yet, but there are parts of the state that have suddenly decayed very, very dangerously.

What do you do with the Taliban, because you do suspect that the Pakistani state and the ISI is hand in glove with the Taliban?

I think our most important task with Pakistan is to convince the leadership in Islamabad that this is their fight. That the forces that oppose the US in Afghanistan are fundamentally the same forces that oppose everything that the vast masses of Pakistanis want. Unless Islamabad recognizes that, the war on terrorism will be lost. If Islamabad recognizes that, there is a lot we can do.

Can India and the US work together on Kashmir?

We don’t need to do that, because both India and Pakistan have reached an agreement on the contours of what a Kashmir solution can be. What we need to do is encourage them to start implementing it. They have reached this solution themselves, it is none of our doing. The kind of solutions that were touted in the 1980s have largely been overtaken by events.

Who are you going to vote for?

I think I am going to vote for senator McCain, early and often! And Sarah Palin of course !

And who do you think is going to be the next president of the US?

I am hoping senator McCain, of course!

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