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Enriched by the deal

The PM deserves our gratitude for standing by his faith for over 24 months, when the announcement about the N-deal was made, writes Abhishek Singhvi.

india Updated: Aug 03, 2007 01:27 IST

Before I shower encomiums on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the government and the group of dedicated negotiators for the Indo-US nuclear deal, a few caveats. Although you are entitled to discount all I say since I am also the Congress spokesperson, facts don’t lie. Moreover, the deal is yet to be consummated; no one can be presumptuous about the vote of the US Congress. Plus, agreements are still to be executed among India and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Thus, the hesitation in sounding euphoric about what is truly a historic achievement.

The PM deserves our gratitude for standing by his faith for over 24 months from July 18, 2005, when the announcement about the deal was made. It is not easy “to keep your head when all around you are losing theirs” — an intrusive press shaking your confidence, a divided Parliament and the ‘doubting Thomases’ of civil society. The PM showed firmness when he conveyed his conviction within India that the deal was good for us and stood his ground rock solid while extracting benefits from the US without compromising an inch on India’s concerns. For all those critics of a soft PM, here is a true lauh purush.

His team of negotiators, led at crucial moments by the National Security Advisor, showcased the Indian talent of working with a remarkable unity of purpose. The Foreign Minister pushed the whole process in his understated style. The UPA chairperson provided the anchor, working tirelessly to ensure that every party of the coalition was engaged. Some dissension by outside supporters for ideological reasons is inevitable in a vibrant democracy.

The next generation will be able to appreciate the benefits of this agreement. If India increases the percentage of its nuclear-supplied power from the present insignificant 3 per cent to 10 per cent and ultimately to 20 per cent — it will change the face of India’s energy supply. India’s crippling reliance on coal — over 50 per cent — and its even more precarious dependency on unavailable and expensive oil — 33 per cent — will be reduced. The last five-year plan , ending this year, achieved only 50 per cent of its projected capacity addition of electricity. Growth at 9-10 per cent without electricity is unprecedented — but our long-term prosperity cannot be based on variables. Thus, the deal is first about future energy security, and not bombs.

The agreement makes India the only country in the world — which possesses a N-bomb and continues its military nuclear programme as a proclaimed nuclear power and is yet to sign the NPT — to get nuclear fuel and equipment from the international community.

The days of technological isolation will also be over. The Cray supercomputer, hitherto not available to India because it could theoretically be used for nuclear purposes, and several other similar types of dual-use technology, will now be available. Any country in the world — most importantly Pakistan — would be prepared to give its right arm for an agreement half as good. It is India alone which segregates its civilian and military nuclear plants and after handing over the former for IAEA inspections, retains the right to keep adding any number of military ones in the future according to its strategic needs.

The sequencing of the negotiations is also significant. After the July 2005 announcement and the March 2006 declaration, India persuaded the US to first pass its domestic legislation and then, after seeing that US legislation does not detract from India’s perceptions, subsequently executed the 123 Agreement. Even after the US legislation, over nine months of hard-nosed negotiations have yielded the 123 Agreement. The agreement ends over four decades of isolation for India during which time all our reactors worked inefficiently for lack of fuel and equipment. The US legislation has large hortatory and provocative portions but they fall under the non-binding sections of the law. For example, the Section 101 of the Hyde Act talks of the “sense of the House” and Section 103 on “Statements of Policy.” President Bush has repeatedly declared that these sections, which talk of Indo-Iran relations, are advisory and non-binding. This is a peculiar bifurcation of the US law, unheard of in India or the Commonwealth.

The final agreement allows even reprocessing of spent fuel, a major Indian concern, in designated facilities. Even these will not be inspected by US inspectors but by IAEA. At present, the US allows Japan, Switzerland and the European Union to reprocess. For all these decades, US-supplied fuel was piling up in India — they neither took it back nor allowed reprocessing. The agreement does not undermine the integrity of India’s three-stage N-programme: pressurised heavy-water reactors (a technology mastered by India) in the first stage, fast-breeder reactors in the second stage (one running and one prototype to be commissioned by 2011) and, crucially, the third stage based on reactors (yet to be developed) which will run on thorium. India has one of the world’s largest reserves of thorium. India’s third concern has also been addressed. The country’s unilateral (and many believe unnecessary) self-imposed moratorium on future nuclear testing (announced by the NDA at the UN) has, after painful negotiation, not been converted into a legally binding commitment in the 123 Agreement, as the US strongly wanted.

Abhishek Singhvi is MP, National Spokesperson, Congress, and a senior advocate