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Fit the last piece

India’s foreign policy has been attacked at home in an unprecedented way: this is not just domestic politics; it is a demoralising and weakening of the foundations of our foreign policy, writes Arundhati Ghose.

india Updated: Sep 14, 2008 23:03 IST

So, after 30 years of protest against ‘technology denial regimes’ and ‘ad hoc export control groups’, all would appear to be over, bar the shouting. But not even India could have expected that a trade embargo on nuclear and related commerce, evolved because of India, would be lifted only for India.

The achievement is remarkable, even if one does not take into account the major obstacles along the way, in India, in the US and those created by the global non-proliferation ‘ayatollahs’ and absolutists. The disapproval continues to echo in dire warnings of consequences. In India, it is the opponents of the ‘deal’ saying that the recent ‘secret revelations’ in the famous US State Department letter to the US Congress actually reveals American ‘bad faith’ making it impossible to enter into civilian nuclear trade with the US. In the US, it is the non-proliferation lobby warning that, despite its ‘voluntary, unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing’ India would be encouraged by the waiver to carry out a test, and that the rickety global non-proliferation regime would have ‘an India-sized hole’, rammed through it by an India bringing the majority of its nuclear reactors under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, by pledging to work for universal and verifiable Fissile

Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) and by a further pledge to support non-proliferation through tighter export control laws.

Incidentally, these are among the ‘conditions’ India’s Prime Minister accepted in 2005, in the Joint Statement he signed with President Bush. This noise is unlikely to die down soon, for if it is not China’s inexplicable behaviour, it is Australia’s decision to abide by that country’s decisions governing trade. These are, however, the least of the challenges ahead; the waiver was adopted by consensus. That is all that matters now.

What happens to the 123 Agreement in the US Congress is, at the time of writing, a matter of speculation, the ups and downs of the debate being awaited by many with febrile breathlessness. And I don’t mean the vote providing for excitement and flourishes through and by the media. The challenges facing the country are, in my view, more basic: how do we adjust to this new situation, economically, strategically and diplomatically? Public expectations, both domestic and global, are high and we need carefully calibrated responses. The hard work at home now begins.

Economic benefits to the country are already well- known and have been extensively written about: the revival of our nuclear energy programme, the longer-term increase in energy availability and the impact on all those industries that have suffered from a restrictive trade regime, both in terms of dual use items and technologies. Whether medicine, agriculture and remote sensing or engineering and electronics, space and biotech, these and others should now be able to enhance their efficiency and competitiveness with spin-offs for the social sector in education, health and employment.

India has got used to decades of sanctions and, to make people aware of new possibilities that can be explored, urgent and detailed studies are required, new laws need to be adapted and information spread about these opportunities.

At the politico-strategic level, we will have to deal with our strategic programme and the issue of non-proliferation. The waiver and, indeed, the Indo-US Agreement deal only with civilian items and technologies. Both India and the US have been careful to firewall our weapons programme from international cooperation; yet, India’s strategic programme has been enmeshed with its civilian programme and the impact is clear in the separation plan. Implementing that plan will now have to be a priority of the Department of Atomic Energy — though it has till 2014 for a phased implementation. Till that is achieved, and IAEA safeguards are in place, international cooperation will be restricted. Simultaneously, India will have to prepare for a verifiable FMCT, bearing in mind its need for a credible minimum deterrent.

The domestic debate, much of it rhetorical, unfortunately has concentrated only on India’s right to test, neglecting the issue of the availability of fissile material for its weapons programme. Those of us who had not been in favour of the moratorium in 1998, viewing it as equivalent to walking out of a Treaty which specifically provides for withdrawal in the ‘supreme national interest’, were given the reassurance that India had the technology not only for computer simulations, but also, if necessary, for ‘sub-critical’ tests. This assurance to Parliament should stand us in good stead at this point in time. After all, the US and the UK, the former having signed the CTBT and the latter having ratified it, have been carrying out such tests in their laboratories — for the ‘safety and reliability’ of their weapons. There would be no bar on India’s doing the same should it feel the need to do so; indeed, it is only explosive tests which are banned by the CTBT, to which we are not a party.

Observing the domestic debate, one often feels that India should be in favour of proliferation; given the fact that we are one of the countries most adversely affected by it, whether it is state or non-state actors. All Indian governments have been in favour of non-proliferation and India has recently joined the US-Russia initiative on countering nuclear terrorism. Perhaps the time has come for us to take initiatives rather than merely reacting, to protect ourselves against proliferation dangers. Clearly, the NPT has failed to do that, whatever its supporters might say.

Finally, at the diplomatic level, the new situation will be most challenging. India is still a developing country with a developing country’s problems and constraints. Global expectations will continue to increase with heightening interactions at many levels, in many fields, and bilateral relations are bound to evolve and mature. A clear vision of where we are headed, and where we would like to be, is imperative. Our diplomats and the rest of the team, who have done an exceptional job in obtaining the waiver, have their work cut out for them. India’s foreign policy has been attacked at home in an unprecedented way: this is not just domestic politics; it is a demoralising and weakening of the foundations of our foreign policy. If we can get an international consensus on such a revolutionary change in the structure of international relations, surely we can start building a consensus at home, at least on the basics of our national interest.

Arundhati Ghose was India’s permanent representative/Ambassador to the UN