Wednesday, July 16, 2008
What’s In It For Us?
Arguments in favour of Indo-US nuclear deal are dubious
Does India need a civilian nuclear energy agreement with the US? Is this the best deal we could have got? Why is the Bush administration trying so hard to push India into signing this deal? Has the prime minister gone about it in the best possible way? Are we bartering away our nuclear sovereignty in the process, thereby endangering our goal to maintain a credible nuclear deterrent?
These are some of the key questions that needed to be satisfactorily answered in the context of the ongoing controversy that has snowballed to a point where it threatens the stability of the Manmohan Singh government. Unfortunately, the political rhetoric that is flying thick and fast for the last one year and more has obfuscated the core issues involved. Enough has been spoken and written about the need to secure India’s energy needs, especially in view of rising oil prices and India’s near-total dependence on imports. Sceptics, on the other hand, have argued that even after investing billions of dollars to set up new reactors, nuclear power will contribute just about 7 per cent of the country’s energy requirements by 2020. But even if it is conceded that India needs every extra megawatt of energy that can be generated, whatever the source, the question still remains whether the Indo-US nuclear deal in its present form is the best that we could have bargained for. On balance, it appears that the deal is good for everybody else, apart from India.
First, we will end up putting huge sums into the coffers of foreign manufacturers of nuclear reactors — mainly French, Russian and American. Second, the estimated cost per unit of nuclear energy will be prohibitively high compared to coal, gas and even crude. Can India afford power at such a high cost when alternative sources have not been exhausted? Without getting into the nuclear sovereignty issue, it can be asserted that the additional energy to be generated through uranium-based reactors will be of dubious benefit. It is often argued that the US administration has been exerting pressure on the Indian establishment because President George W Bush, reeling under unfavourable popularity ratings, wants to exhibit it as his one great foreign policy success. This is utterly fallacious: most Americans have not even heard of this deal, given their proverbial insularity and selfobsession. Further, the Republicans are hardly expected to make this an issue in the November presidential election. Interestingly, most western powers have been vigorously pushing for the deal, although with greater sophistication than the sledgehammer tactics characteristically employed by Americans. Diplomacy, after all, is not based on altruism. Surely, they are not falling over one another out of love or compassion for India. Apart from the business potential, the deal is being driven in western capitals by the motive of firmly roping India into the non-proliferation regime. India has an unblemished record here, but there are concerns about the future in view of the volatility of the Asian theatre. Since India cannot officially be admitted into the NPT, the deal has attempted to manoeuvre us into a situation where New Delhi becomes a de facto signatory to the NPT, just as we will be conferred the dubious distinction of being a de facto nuclear weapons state once we sign the deal.
Following the disclosure of the text of the IAEA safeguards agreement, it is abundantly clear that, while international inspection and safeguards shall be imposed permanently on our reactors, the exemptions remain doubtful. It is widely known that for all practical purposes no further testing shall be permitted. The government has repeatedly highlighted the “walk out” clause to claim that India can test whenever it wants and even if the US imposes sanctions, we can still negotiate with other countries in the Nuclear Suppliers Group to maintain uninterrupted uranium imports. This is complete hogwash. Can anybody in his right mind believe that the US will patronisingly oversee the supply of fissile material by other countries even after India conducts another nuclear test? It would be more honest to admit that the Indo-US nuclear deal is a three-in-one document comprising a civilian energy cooperation agreement with the US, de facto NPT and de facto CTBT. A discussion on the merits and demerits of the deal would be meaningful only if we begin from this premise instead of deluding ourselves into believing that, possessed by a burning desire to help India, the US wants to hand out a “give-give” agreement with us and that nothing will change as far as our military nuclear programme is concerned.
Whichever way you look at the deal, honestly or deceitfully, it is a huge political albatross. Manmohan Singh has been forced to risk his government’s fate and enter into a questionable alliance with a party not known for scrupulous adherence to norms of probity in public life. When the prime minister first challenged the Left to pull out last September, it was perhaps the best moment for the Congress to go for an early election buoyed by high growth, manageable inflation and opposition incoherence. Today, all three factors are ranged unfavourably against the ruling party. Manmohan Singh has never claimed to be a master strategist, but others in his party are known for their political acumen and manipulative skills. However, they got cold feet last year and now the Congress is set to pay a price for their vacillation. In politics, as in other spheres of life, you win only if you dare; defeat is inevitable if you dither and delay.