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Home > News > Columnists > T P Sreenivasan

Leave the nuclear deal to the Little Man

August 29, 2007

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At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy is the little man walking into the little booth with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper. No amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of that point,' said Sir Winston Churchill.

Will that little man put that little cross in the right place if he is given an opportunity to decide whether India should proceed with the nuclear deal?

The nuclear deal is nothing but a logical extension of the efforts made by the previous government to find an accommodation with the global non-proliferation regime after the tests of 1998.

In fact, India has been pursuing such an accommodation since 1974, which means that virtually every political party in India is in agreement that India's nuclear isolation should end.

Therefore, there is no doubt that the little man will have no difficulty to accept a deal, which gives India an opening to nuclear technology without signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, NPT.

The only question, then, is whether the Manmohan Singh [Images] government could have negotiated a better deal with the United States. Anyone, who has followed the dialogue with the United States since May 1998, will know that the deal has the right mix of rights and obligations for India and that we could not have done better in the negotiations, given the proclivities of public opinion not only in the United States, but also in other countries, including Russia [Images]. The proof of this is that the deal has gained acceptance in many countries, though the Chinese position is generally negative.

(Then US deputy secretary of state) Strobe Talbott may have said that the Indian negotiators got the better of him, but the five benchmarks that he was pursuing with (then Indian external affairs minister) Jaswant Singh would have tied us in knots much more than the present nuclear deal would do.

In fact, India had all but accepted the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, CTBT, subject only to 'de-demonising' it in the eyes of the Indian public. Another benchmark, namely, strategic restraint, was nothing but a thinly veiled plan for capping, rolling back and eliminating our nuclear weapon capability. On export controls, we virtually endorsed the Nuclear Suppliers Group, NSG guidelines. We had no difficulty in agreeing to negotiate and, if possible, sign a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, FMCT. Even on the fifth benchmark of better relations with Pakistan, we were receptive as Lahore [Images] and Agra [Images] had shown.

The Bush-Manmohan Singh deal, even with the Hyde Act as a backdrop, stops short of conceding some of the points in the blue print that the previous government was considering. The 123 Agreement is open to different interpretations, but it has enough ambiguities there to operate in our interest, if the American change of heart in favour of India in the new world is real. It is a framework that can accommodate concessions in the business interests of both the countries. The withdrawal clauses in the Agreement are a masterpiece in drafting. But it is premised on good faith and mutuality of interests, not on the shibboleths of the Cold War or even the Bangladesh war.

The opposition to the deal today, which did not become apparent during the 1998-2000 period and did not become acute till the 123 Agreement was finalised, is on the assumption that good faith does not exist and that a strategic relationship with the United States, even in the changed world scenario, is harmful.

The argument appears to be in favour of an agreement that deals with the nuclear issue, but does not bring us any closer to the United States. The irony, of course, is that we have been trying in the past to resolve the nuclear imbroglio, which alone stood in the way of improving our relations with the United States.

As of today, the situation is that one alliance loves the deal, but it loves power more and another alliance hates the deal, but hates to lose the political leverage it has today. Yet another alliance would like to sign the same deal, but in a different garb, if and when it comes to power. No mechanism, whether political or technical can square this circle. The questionnaire can be answered, but the questions will remain. The Hyde Act and the 123 Agreement are realities that cannot be wished away.

In fact, India, in an act of misjudgment, had deployed all its Indian American and business clout in Washington to have the Hyde Act passed, in the expectation that it would be defanged by the Bush Administration. The Left was not breathing down the necks of the negotiators when they secured satisfactory formulations in the 123 Agreement.

If India pauses or even ejects on account of domestic pressure, it is not just our credibility that will be at stake, but also an opportunity to have a satisfactory deal. In international law, an agreement comes into force or it does not. Not 'operationalising' is not a recognised option for parties to an agreement. Another US President and another US Congress may not be inclined to negotiate on the same lines in the future, particularly if there is no national consensus in India in favour of a new relationship between the two countries.

The question today is whether the apparent disapproval of the deal by a majority of the members of Parliament really reflects the mood of the people. In other countries, this would be a classic case for a national referendum. Since we do not have such a constitutional provision, there is no choice for us, but to go to the little man and let him make a choice.

But the worry is his proverbial unpredictability. Indian democracy will shine more if the political parties have the courage to face the electorate on an issue of such public importance. If voted back to power, the government can pursue the deal as well as its worldview with vigour. If not, the new dispensation will find its own path forward. Let the little man decide.

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