Debated almost to (its) death, has the Indo-US nuclear ‘deal’ become any clearer to our people? Instead of being illuminated by honest differences of opinion, the pros and cons have become enshrouded in a miasma of obfuscation, with shrill accusations against the intelligence, integrity and loyalty of supporters creating an atmosphere of surrender and betrayal. Reactions carried in our media actually show substantial support but, as so often, a determined minority has spread the impression that the government is allowing something terrible to be inflicted on us. Before this kills the deal, we must reconsider dispassionately what we may gain or lose.
Perspectives determine assessments. Viewed in terms of sovereign rights, of our entitlement to do what we want without anyone else interfering, the nuclear deal obviously imposes limitations. But rights do not exist in the abstract; they are meaningless without the capability to exercise them. And seen, as it should be, as a way out the enormous restriction of our rights with which circumstances have encircled us, the deal — just in itself and even without its significance in a wider context — offers opportunities otherwise unavailable to us.
To suggest the deal is perfect or without costs would affront reason. It is a worse affront to suppose that we can do better without paying these, or any such high, costs. Goodness knows what costs we have already paid to achieve our existing nuclear capabilities against extraordinary odds. We don’t mind because it has been a national necessity, sanctified by success. But it is a grave disservice to encourage the illusion that we can keep succeeding, doing freely whatever we want, at no greater cost than hitherto. On the contrary, our very success has made us more vulnerable: the nuclear installations we have developed, including those we would keep for nuclear weapons, simply cannot function without adequate fuel supply, for which, no matter how ingenious our scientists, we need the one thing we lack: uranium.
That is the heart of the issue: we have hardly enough uranium for our minimum deterrence, leave alone anything larger. Plutonium, thorium, fast-breeder reactors, reprocessing — all the scientific mumbo-jumbo with which our vulnerability can be obscured to the layman behind a veil of alternative hopes — simply avoids the harsh reality. The international community has built up a series of constraints to prevent a State like ours, which has actually observed the spirit and purpose of non-proliferation far more sincerely than its treaty signatories, from having access to the technology and raw materials we need. Unfair, discriminatory, even dishonest, it is nevertheless the reality we cannot escape — or alter by ourselves. The US deal does not give us all we ought to get; it obliges us to accept some limits we might well want to avoid. But it is not only reasonable; it is the only way out of the nuclear dog house to which the world has tried to confine us. Without it, and without adequate uranium, how will we maintain, much less develop, our nuclear intentions?
Trust us, is basically what critics in our scientific community tell us — we did it before, we can keep on doing it. All honour to our scientists, for their inherent qualities as much as their manifest achievements. But neither the mystique of their reputation and the mysteries of their expertise absolves them from telling us how they will proceed when nobody — not France , not Russia, not a single old friend or new — is prepared to circumvent from us in any way an increasingly strict NPT regime. Yes, North Korea managed by hook or by crook; Iran still defies the odds. But such single-minded determination works in authoritarian States, which can enforce sacrifices on their people. Can our society bear the such strains? Can any elected government even dare impose them? Yes, there is a great arms bazaar out there, but apart from the far stricter controls now applicable, are we willing to go the A.Q. Khan way?
We are forgetting the universal condemnation of our 1994 tests and the stifling sanctions that were then imposed — and from which we are partially exempt today primarily because of the US deal. We are forgetting that Tarapur was on the verge of closing down but for the same change of American attitudes.
And what of the wider significance? Countries are like people: some are born great, some rise to greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them; we Indians like to consider ourselves great by birth. Certainly we have raised our greatness considerably. But as for the ultimate greatness of carrying undisputed weight in the world, we are not allowing it to be thrust upon us. Doubtless, our shining economic image plus our existing military capabilities have already gained us considerable respect. But only those who do not understand the role of power in world affairs, with all its incalculable as well as obvious components, can fail to realise what a quantum leap we are getting from Washington’s willingness to reverse its historic opposition to our nuclear military programme. Visit any part of the world, and policy-makers who had no time for us are calculating that if the US — for whatever ulterior motives of its own — is looking to India as a rising power, they should get into the act. Most find our hesitations baffling, and await the outcome to decide on their own level of cooperation with us. We will doubtless survive a collapse of the deal. But no one should underestimate the measurably harmful effect it would have on the way other States look at us — and on our nuclear programme.
Anyone who thinks this wider significance is just airy-fairy nonsense should look at the bizarre companionship of opponents to the deal: Pakistan, of course; but why is China working as hard against the deal as the ferociously anti-India NPT lobby? Even Brazil and South Africa, the partners we seek in other ways, grumble against our getting what they gave up. Let’s face it, on this issue, it will be hard to find a friend except, perversely enough, if the deal succeeds, when everyone will want to make the most of it.
Policy decisions in our system can only be taken by our elected leaders. Just as we consult soldiers on war or peace but do not leave the decision to them, we should consult our scientists without giving them veto powers over the decision of our elected leaders. The deal is part of what the world sees as a great vision of our future. What an irony it would be if, while others see us in this larger context, we ourselves refuse to rise to greatness.
It is easy to sneer at this ‘Vision Thing’. But it is an essential spur to greatness. We have historically lacked strategic thinking, ignoring and rejecting the role of power, particularly the reality that power determines options. Whatever you can or cannot do today or tomorrow depends on your power stature, on its inherent effectiveness and on how you are seen to use it. Will our ‘small power’ way of doing things allow our political leaders to rise to this occasion?
K Shankar Bajpai is a former Ambassador to Pakistan, China and the United States & Secretary, External Affairs Ministry