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Nuclear deal: The road ahead for India
Rajiv Sikri
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December 21, 2006
Rajiv Sikri was one of 16 senior Indian Foreign Service officers superseded when the government chose Shiv Shankar Menon as India's foreign secretary in late September.

Angered by the government's decision, Sikri, who had served the IFS for 36 years, resigned from the foreign service.

This is his first column since quitting the IFS. Exclusive to

Now that the United States Congress and US President George W Bush [Images] have approved the Hyde Act, the US bottom line is clear.

On the Indian side, however, even after Parliament has thoroughly debated the matter -- yet again -- the road ahead is not at all clear.

It is time therefore to try to lift the fog over the Indo-US nuclear deal.

Never before has the Indian establishment and public been so divided on a foreign policy issue, one that has engendered heated political and public debate in India for nearly 18 months. Today's unprecedented divisiveness over the nuclear deal has destroyed the traditional national consensus on India's foreign policy. This may be difficult to restore.

Never before has a US administration exerted so much effort with the US Congress or lobbied so hard in India on any issue. Obviously, a lot is at stake -- for both sides. The essence of the problem, and hence the controversy, is that the US and India are seeking to achieve different objectives from this deal.

A reading of the Hyde Act brings out clearly Congressional thinking and motivation in passing the Hyde Act. The broad objectives of the Bush administration are no different, as confirmed by various statements of top US officials. Two principal US objectives stand out.

The first, perhaps the more important one, is to ensure that India's foreign policy is 'congruent' to that of the US, with this deal expected to 'induce greater political and material support to the achievement of US goals.' India's growing economic and political role in the world is seen as a 'new and significant strategic opportunity to advance US goals.' Iran gets a specific mention, with the US expecting India's 'full and active cooperation to dissuade, isolate and if necessary sanction and contain Iran.' There is also talk of India as an 'ally' or at least a 'strategic partner.'

The second objective relates to non-proliferation, through strengthening and sustaining the implementation of the NPT. India remaining outside the NPT poses a 'potential challenge to the goals of global non-proliferation.' A corollary objective is to curb India's nuclear weapons capability. In a semantic concession to the earlier Democratic mantra of 'cap, rollback and eliminate', the objective now is to seek to 'halt the increase in nuclear weapons arsenals in South Asia and to promote their reduction and eventual elimination.'

Indian official statements, including at the highest level, have taken the line that this deal is all about civilian nuclear energy, not about India's nuclear weapons programme. But getting US support for India's civilian nuclear energy programme is merely one element, and not the most important one, in the Indian (and US) considerations behind this deal.

Nuclear energy currently occupies only about 3 per cent share in India's total commercial energy mix, and even the most optimistic projections do not see it as ever going beyond 15 per cent. No assessment has been made available whether the cost of nuclear energy generated from imported fuel, equipment and technology would be economically viable. Nor has there has been any detailed study or considered policy conclusion whether with the same quantum of investment India would be better off giving priority to nuclear energy rather than to renewable sources of energy like hydropower, wind and solar energy.

Even in the civilian nuclear energy sector, India's comparative advantage lies in using the thorium route in order to take advantage of its ample thorium reserves, not in building external dependencies by buying reactors and nuclear material from abroad. What happens to the enormous investments that would have been made in nuclear power plants in India and by the end-users of the anticipated power supplies from nuclear reactors if for any reason the US halts nuclear cooperation with India?

We would be deluding ourselves if we believe that this deal will somehow provide energy security to India. The civilian nuclear energy argument is a red herring, or at best a peg on which to hang a wider strategic opening between India and the US.

One possible consideration for the Indian side to go in for the deal could be that uranium from abroad for our civilian nuclear energy programme would free up indigenous uranium for our nuclear weapons programme. However, the stringent provisions of the Hyde Act require the US president to keep track of uranium production and utilisation in India precisely to obviate such a possibility. Would it not make more sense, therefore, for India to accelerate its efforts to more efficiently mine existing uranium deposits in India, to step up prospecting for new deposits, and to actively explore possibilities of getting uranium from non-NSG members?

No Indian government spokesman has stated that India shares the strategic objectives of the US Congress and Bush administration in concluding this deal. If it does, the Indian government is understandably coy about it, because to admit this would be politically suicidal. Instead, assorted publicists and drumbeaters of the government have been drafted to put a positive spin on the deal and 'sell' it to the public.

Among the touted benefits of the deal are firstly, that India will get recognition as a nuclear weapons power; secondly, that it would lead to the end of 'technology apartheid'; and finally, that it is better to be on the side of the US in the post-Cold War era. US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has expressly ruled out the first. On the second, there is so far neither any evidence, nor commitment nor promise to warrant such a conclusion. The third argument is an important matter that deserves to be thoroughly debated, not blithely presumed.

Some ardent supporters of the deal, in remarks that smack of intellectual arrogance, have tried to portray critics as 'Neanderthal intellectuals.' However, the views of major political parties, sections of the Congress party itself, former prime ministers and foreign ministers, top nuclear scientists, experienced diplomats, and leading members of the strategic community in India who have conveyed their unease over this deal cannot be simply brushed aside as being immature or uninformed.

If the government does have more information that makes it so self-assured, it must take the nation into confidence on this matter which has generated great public interest and debate, in order to convince its numerous and voluble critics in Parliament and outside. A Parliament resolution reflecting the sense of the House would have forged a national consensus and strengthened the government's hand in negotiations with the US.

The July 18, 2005 agreement was thrust upon the Indian public, and even the Indian nuclear establishment, at the last minute, without adequate preparation and perhaps without fully thinking through its consequences and implications. At that time the country accepted the government's contention that the overall balance of the agreement was favourable to India and did not compromise India's national interests. Today, this is no longer the case.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [Images] had spelt out the 'red lines' in Parliament on August 17, 2006. He had stated that if the final US legislation imposes extraneous conditions on India, then the government would draw the necessary conclusions consistent with the commitments he had made to Parliament. Wide gaps remain between the provisions of the Hyde Act and Dr Singh's assurances in Parliament. Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee too has admitted that there are 'extraneous and prescriptive' provisions in the Bill passed by the US Congress. What conclusions, if any, has the government drawn? Parliament has merely been given soothing assurances that we should now await the 123 Agreement!

It is disingenuous to aver that the Hyde Act is a piece of legislation that does not affect India and that India will only be concerned with the 123 Agreement that is being negotiated. If this were really so, it is hard to understand why India has been lobbying so hard with key Congressmen and Senators, including Dr Singh calling up Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

It is sophistry to claim that sections of the bill are 'non-binding'. The bill does not make any distinction between so-called 'binding' and 'non-binding' provisions. President Bush may consider some sections of the Hyde Act as merely advisory, but his successors may not. India's experience with fuel for Tarapore is instructive. Dr Singh has conceded in Parliament that certain provisions, even if they are projected as non-binding on India, are contrary to the letter and spirit of the July 18, 2005 agreement, and that non-binding provisions have 'a certain weight' in the implementation of the legislation as a whole.

There is deep, and justifiable, scepticism whether any 123 Agreement can satisfactorily address India's concerns. Can US negotiators agree to anything that goes against the provisions of the Hyde Act? There remains a lurking and widespread suspicion in India that the government is bent on somehow concluding this deal, by stealth if necessary.

Even if India negotiates brilliantly and somehow miraculously brings around the US side to the Indian point of view, the 123 Agreement will have to go back to Congress, which may well reject it if its provisions violate those of the Hyde Act.

The Bush administration, which has invested a lot of its depleting political capital in the deal, can be expected to lean heavily on India to sign a 123 Agreement, howsoever unsatisfactory it may be from India's point of view. The US will not let India walk away from the deal so easily.

When India resists signing any inequitable deal, as it should, multiple points of pressure will be applied on India. This will inevitably give rise to tensions in India-US relations.

No one questions the need for India to have even better relations with the US. In recent years, India-US relations have been on a steady upward trajectory. This process definitely needs to be carried forward. Was it really necessary to hinge the future of the relationship on the nuclear deal? Neither leader wants the deal to fail, for reasons of prestige, and also perhaps considerations of 'legacy'. But the will of leaders may not be enough.

This is no time for naivete or self-deception. The Indian government will have to make an honest judgment whether, against formidable odds, the deal can be done on terms acceptable to India. If not, now is the time to try to disengage as smoothly as possible. The longer one waits the more difficult it will become. One is not sure if there is a Plan B to mitigate the consequences of a possible non-fructification of the deal, and to handle the resultant feelings of anger and frustration, disillusionment and betrayal, and the traditional mistrust between India and the US that is bound to resurface in the wake of a shattered deal.

If on the other hand the government signs a 123 Agreement that is seen as compromising India's vital national interests, it will regrettably signal that the government has steered India as a junior partner into a strategic alignment with the US. As there does not appear to be a national consensus for such a major foreign policy shift, that would set the stage for an avoidable political confrontation, which could have consequences going far beyond foreign policy.

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