Few issues have generated such concentrated, prolonged controversy as our ‘nuclear deal’. Kashmir, the China boundary, various Pakistani crises were actual happenings. The deal is about what may happen.
Like our economic reforms, the agreement is a means to an end — curiously, provoking the same divides and inspired by the same leader. What has passed for public debate is essentially over means. It has unfortunately ignored the connection between means and capabilities.
What may happen, depends on your power. And the nuclear deal must be seen — and should have been better projected — in the perspective of its authors: a step in India’s emergence as a major power.
It is still a matter of potential. The world considers India as the next great power because of our economic and military achievements. But it assumed that we have the necessary decision-making apparatus. How our political processes handled the nuclear deal has greatly shaken that assumption. We hardly lived up to our thousands-years-old tradition of rigorous intellectual discipline, or showed ourselves ready to think as great — or as indeed all serious — powers do.
The energy aspect is not minor: 5 or 8 per cent. We need so much, and every little bit matters. The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) approval was obtained formally on energy grounds. But in domestic polemics, it’s smallness exposed it to sarcasm: why sell out for so little? That charge carried two innate questions: what sell-out; and is it really so little?
Opponents make two basic accusations: we have abandoned rights to test, and we have fallen under American control. Other criticisms include: fuel supply uncertainty and ENR (enrichment and reprocessing) ambivalence. These are supplementary. Unquestionably, such fears could prove true — if you let them be true. After decades of independence, do we still lack self-confidence so badly?
We have paid heavily and repeatedly by naively clinging on to theoretical rights without having the power to obtain them. We demanded Independence instead of Dominion Status, and launched a Quit India movement without any planning that ended up with a bloody Partition. We let our legislature micro-manage the China boundary issue — ‘not an inch of our territory to be surrendered’ — and lost several thousand square kilometres. Kashmir must be no different from other states; so where do we go now? We must have the right to test. But does that right not depend also on our power?
Nobody — not even our best friends — will agree that we can test. America, Russia, France — almost all countries in the world adhering to the NPT — will not only react to any Indian nuclear test according to their declared positions, but they will also react according to how they see us at the time. Vienna just showed us that India’s future was almost decided by six countries with a lower combined population than Delhi’s. We want the same rights as the Nuclear Five, who got them simply because they exploded their devices by a certain date. We ignored power politics (dare one mention the unrealised scientific hopes?) and missed that cut-off date. We are similarly ignoring the power politics in regard to our testing rights now.
We might also ask, why test at all? To refine our technology as others have done. But how can we do that if we can’t even get fuel for our existing plants?
The 123 agreement seeks circumventing automatic termination, providing for consultations on the circumstances leading to the test. The ‘know-betters’ sneer at this figleaf. Of course, it will all depend on the state of our relations at the time. Even the most explicit agreements are interpreted according to need.
Which raises the ‘American duplicity’ question — Washington telling the US Congress one thing and us another. We betray our naiveté about how the world ticks. International negotiations inevitably involve differences. In this case, it was between what will work with us and what will work with the US Congress. It is the very essence of diplomacy to find solutions for such differences. Deception is wrong. Indeed, it is self-defeating, always betraying itself. But calculated ambiguity is an essential tool. It has risks. It may produce agreements, meaning different things to different people. But later interpretations depend on relations at the time — which, again, depend on power equations.
As for surrendering to American goodwill (read: diktats), nobody has any illusions. The US is not giving us this deal without expecting something in return. Specifically, it sees a strong India as an asset in a world in which China is the second world power. Is that beyond our comprehension or ability to accept that, while retaining our freedom of action? One can accept American help in becoming strong without ganging up against China. Thoughtful Americans, who have pushed this deal, realise that it serves no Indian interest to enter into any confrontation with China. But neither does an Asia dominated by China. We look for better relations with China, hoping it will be an internationally cooperative power, not an assertive one throwing its weight around. But can we ignore its worrying actions — nuclear help to Pakistan, naval bases in Myanmar and Gwadar and its open obstructiveness in Vienna?
The hypocrisy of a blatant nuclear proliferator opposing our nuclear deal for being a danger to non-proliferation should not nauseate us. This is the way the world works. The Chinese understand — more clearly than us — that the ‘deal’ is to strengthen India. Do we understand that, having disdained us as not being in their league, the Chinese does not welcome a strong India?
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposite ideas in the mind without losing the ability to act.” We Indians constantly entertain contradictions, but fail Scott Fitzgerald’s test of action. It is essential for effective involvement in world affairs to be able to manage contradictory pressures. Iran provides the most immediate example. Objectively considered, Iran has done nothing for us. But adding to civilisational ties and our Shia sensitivities, there are solid reasons to have good relations. But do we want a nuclear Iran?
We won in Vienna not because of our record on non-proliferation, but also because it is in India’s vital interest that no more countries go nuclear. Those most likely to will add to our security problems. We must learn to be able to seek improved relations with Iran and yet stick firmly to our non-proliferation credentials and interests. And the more powerful we are, the better we can manage such dilemmas.
With China, Iran, Pakistan, Russia as well as with the US — we will have points of congruence and points of disagreement. Without mastering the complexities of statecraft, there can be no Great State.
K. Shankar Bajpai is former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs. He was also the Indian Ambassador to Pakistan, China and the US