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The Rediff Interview/Former Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar
'An open debate on the N-deal won't hurt India'
August 19, 2007
The United Progressive Alliance government is caught in the horns of dilemma on whether to 'operationalise' the 123 Agreement with the United States. The Left parties, which extend critical support to the UPA government from outside have strongly called on the Congress Party leadership to refrain from holding any further discussions with the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
To find out what the reservations of the Left are and what the diplomatic consequences will be if the deal is stalled, Managing Editor Sheela Bhatt spoke to former Indian ambassador M K Bhadrakumar, a fierce critic of the nuclear deal with America.
What are the main reservations about the 123 Agreement?
Without doubt, the majority opinion in Parliament and a very significant section of the Indian strategic and scientific community apprehend that the nuclear deal ties India down in perpetuity; its real gains for India's development are highly suspect; and it holds the grave danger of putting India's national policies across-the-board on 'auto-pilot', as it were, geared to the vicissitudes of politics in Washington.
An exhaustive discussion involving public opinion has become a minimum prerequisite before the UPA government 'operationalises' the 123 Agreement. Open debate cannot hurt India's interests.
Something good in the nature of a national consensus may emerge out of what is today a highly divisive, argumentative climate of opinion almost unprecedented in our country.
Also read: Experts dissect the 123 Agreement
Besides, it is dishonest to pretend that the Hyde Act doesn't come into play in the downstream of our nuclear cooperation with the U.S. The 123 Agreement says that 'national laws' shall prevail. Now, India doesn't have 'national laws' in this sphere.
Our highest legislative body, the Indian Parliament, doesn't even have the prerogative to sit in judgment on the efficacy or acceptability or implementation of the nuclear deal.
Thus, plainly speaking, the 123 Agreement and its implementation come under the purview of the American legislation and the recommendations of incumbent US Presidents. The Hyde Act, like any American legislation, has different grey templates of a binding character.
We cannot overlook the reality that the 123 inherently places India at a disadvantage, being a 'recipient' country while the US remains a 'supplier' country.
There is no scope here for international arbitration if a difference of opinion arises - a common provision in any international agreement.
The US has a sophisticated political system where the Congress acts as an important instrument of foreign policy. Congress is both a check on the executive authority and a close ally in projecting hardcore American national interests abroad. Senator Richard Lugar, who headed the Foreign Relations Committee of the US Senate, was a key figure in the foreign policy establishment in Washington.
Equally, the Bush Administration is leaving office shortly. The international climate is extremely fluid. US officials have repeatedly underscored that the deal forms part of a broad 'strategic partnership' with India. What does that entail? There is a deep sense of disquiet that India might get locked into the US global strategies.
This is not an issue of 'pro-Americans' versus 'anti-Americans'. Some educated Indians believe it to be almost a betrayal at a personal level if India doesn't go along with the 123 Agreement. Where is the scope for personal sentiments and sensitivity on national issues?
Any step that we take must be well judged, cautious and balanced. We shouldn't labour under notions that the US is determined to make a first class world power out of our ancient land.
Greatness is never thrust upon a nation. It should come naturally. It should be hard earned. History bears testimony that no country sets itself out to make a great power out of any other country.
What will be the diplomatic consequences if the 123 Agreement is 'frozen' or delayed under the pressure from the Left parties? Is it possible for India to back out?
The United States should have no difficulty to understand that India is a sovereign country with a vibrant democracy, and that this nuclear deal simply lacks majority support in our public opinion.
After all, the US has a consistent tradition of giving primacy to its national sovereignty and core interests and vital concerns. It has a track record of unhesitatingly rethinking international treaties and revisiting foreign policy commitments in terms of the twists and turns of prevailing American national interests.
Ironically, the CTBT (Conventional Test Ban Treaty) itself is a famous case where the US initiated international negotiations, worked hard in drafting a consensus treaty, and then developed cold feet, and brusquely rejected it.
In more recent times, Washington blew hot and cold in agreeing to Russia's [Images] membership of the WTO. US negotiators kept on introducing new elements at several stages into an agreement that was all but wrapped up, according to the Russians.
Instances can be multiplied. In anticipation of Russia's likely post-Soviet resurgence, the US Congress has till today not cared to dismantle the Jackson-Vanik legislation of the early 1970s, which imposes embargo on trade with Moscow [Images], despite the Cold War having become a relic of history.
The Americans play hardball when it comes to their core interests and vital concerns. They never allow their national sovereignty to be subservient to international covenants. Clearly, the Americans take a cool, calculated view of time and space.
Therefore, it is not a question of our sensitivity to the American feelings, even if George W Bush [Images] may appear currently to some amongst us as the 'friendliest' US President in history. The UPA government's commitment should be first and foremost to the Indian people. It must open its eyes and size up the huge groundswell of national opinion.
Our officials may have worked hard negotiating the draft 123 Agreement. Maybe, they ought to work a little bit harder. But then, they obey their political masters.
How would India cope with any negative fallout on US thinking?
India is only one of many countries that are caught up in the maelstrom of globalisation. There is no need to panic that we may get into American crosshairs. Certainly, we shouldn't become lotus-eaters either.
Secondly, the present period in world politics is a time of transition. The volatility is self-evident. The US on its part is resetting its trans-Atlantic ties. A close traditional NATO ally like Turkey, for example, is today under the American scanner. Saudi Arabia is becoming recaltricant from the view point of US regional policy.
It is far from clear how the trends toward multipolarity in the international system would play out. At a minimum, we should not subject ourselves to the self-created paroxysms of 'unipolar predicament'.
The point is, India holds many trump cards, especially the prospect of the Indian economy becoming a locomotive of growth for the world economy. The size of the Indian market holds attraction for foreign capital and business.
After all, if the Bill Clinton [Images] Administration decided to abruptly give up its unhelpful attitude on the Kashmir problem or to change course in its India policy in the closing years of the 1990s, that was not for altruistic purposes.
Successive governments in Delhi since Independence consistently strove hard to build up a close relationship with the US. This was so even during the prime ministership of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi [Images].
Even the much-touted Indo-Soviet friendship and cooperation ensued only when India found itself in the cold stare of American hostility through much of the 1950s and 1960s. But Washington felt ready to engage India only within the past decade.
What will be the impact of the deal on India's relations with China?
India should do it all to avoid being used as a doormat in US policy in the Asia-Pacific region. China's rise is phenomenal. India must come to terms with it in a constructive and positive spirit.
Actually, the US itself has no choice but to work with China on the world stage. Let us not forget that China holds over $900 billion in US treasury bonds. China's manufacturing subsidises the US consumer.
China acquiesces with the pretentious role of the American dollar in the world economy. Americans of insight realise this.
Thus, it is nothing short of lunacy on our part to imagine that there is scope for India to garner US goodwill by partaking of any 'containment' of China.
On the other hand, India should step up its efforts in building greater trust and understanding with China. Somehow, the UPA government has failed to keep up the momentum. We should engage China bilaterally and multilaterally.
It is a pity that the UPA government has jettisoned the raison d'etre of the Russia-China-India trilateral format and has become lukewarm about the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
These are not processes that hurt Indian interests in any way, while their potential for diversifying India's regional cooperation is unmistakable. We must get over the fallacy that Bush in the White House, God is in the heavens and all is well with the world.
Why are the opponents of the nuclear deal pushing the country into instability and possible early elections?
The prime minister's suo moto interview with a leading Indian daily newspaper a week ago unfortunately introduced into the discussion -- quite unnecessarily, in my opinion -- the angle of the durability of the UPA government.
Why that was done, I cannot yet comprehend. Who advised the prime minister, I do not know.
But the Congress Party seems to have since retracted. It seems to be showing a preference for an idiom of dialogue and reconciliation, rather than of wasteful grandstanding or standoff.
Indeed, the topic is not to be obfuscated by raising the spectre of political instability. This is an issue of such fundamental importance that it shouldn't be mixed up with electoral politics.
How could it be possibly said that critics of the nuclear deal are demanding early elections? In my opinion, it is the acolytes of the deal, who would like the deal to be rushed through, suspending all disbelief, who are resorting to political brinkmanship.
I hope better sense prevails and they show restraint and a spirit of give and take.
National consensus in foreign policy is, after all, a legacy of the grand old Congress party.
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