Politics has often been described as the art of the possible, but the Left and the BJP have turned it into the art of make-believe. The Indo-US nuclear treaty is far and away India’s most important diplomatic achievement. It has been preceded by two years of the most intense, scientifically well-informed, and public debate, one which the government has participated in constructively. The inputs it has received have helped to shape its deal with the US — notoriously the most difficult negotiator in the world. And the agreement that has emerged fulfils the most important requirement of durability: it is an equal treaty in which both sides have yielded some ground to arrive at an agreement.
But the Left and the BJP have turned the agreement into a straw man in order to be able to pick holes in it. According to them, India has signed away its sovereignty in foreign policy and agreed to become a ‘strategic ally’ of the US, in exchange for a technology that will meet only 6 per cent of its energy needs by the end of the next decade. This is less than 30 pieces of silver.
The political calculations that might lie behind the Left’s stance and its unlikely alliance with the BJP need not detain us here. But politics apart, is the Indo-US nuclear deal truly not in India’s long-term interest? An examination shows that it is quite the opposite.
The sole plank of the Left and the BJP is that the Hyde Act — by which the US administration is bound — contains provisions that could easily be used to force India to surrender to Washington control of its foreign policy. But the 123 agreement, legally binding on both countries, shows that, on the contrary, it is the Bush administration that has very largely met three of the four objections that a panel of eminent nuclear scientists had raised in Mumbai on December 15 last year. Although India has not been guaranteed access to US enrichment technology, it has secured the right to reprocess the spent fuel it uses in its civilian reactors under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) supervision. The treaty contains not only provisions designed to prevent the disruption of fuel supplies, but binds the US to doing all it can to prevent it. Finally, there is not a single word in the treaty that requires India to pursue a foreign policy ‘congruent’ with that of the US.
It is only on India’s right to test, that there has been no substantive departure from the Hyde Act. This is not surprising because a Congressional enactment of the late 1970s mandated the suspension of all nuclear, and several other, forms of cooperation with countries that are actively pursuing a nuclear weaponisation programme. Any administration in Washington is as much bound to respect the sovereign legislative power of the US Congress,
as any Indian government is constrained to uphold the country’s sovereignty if the security environment deteriorates dramatically. Both countries will have to live with the consequence of these constraints. India may have to forego carrying out ‘hot’ tests on newer and more effective warhead designs. The US will have to factor in the possibility that invocation of the Hyde Act by American groups to pressure their government on issues concerning India could discourage acceptance of American tenders for power generation plants and fuel suppliers.
Nor is the Left and BJP’s second argument any more tenable. It is true that at the moment only 3,430 MW out of 137,000 MW of installed generation capacity is nuclear. But if India is only to make up the 40,000 MW deficit in generation capacity logged up during the last two plans, and provide for a 7 per cent growth rate in the future, we will need to add more than 550,000 MW of power plants in the next 20 years. At present we have plans for 60,000 MW of additional coal-based generation and a total of 399 identified hydel power sites, that will generate no more than 50,000 MW of power when averaged over the year. The balance will have to come from nuclear power.
This should be sufficient justification for the agreement, but India’s gains go far beyond access to nuclear power plants and imported uranium. It gains India acceptance as a ‘responsible’ nuclear power, without becoming a signatory to the NPT.
The agreement with the US is the first, and most difficult, step in a three-step process which, if negotiated successfully, will lift the worldwide embargo on the supply of so-called ‘dual use’ technology to India. This was a ban that was conceived with only India in mind, more than 30 years ago after India’s first nuclear test in 1974. Since then it has been applied to many products and technologies, and been endorsed by more and more countries till it has become a powerful choke on our future growth.
What has made its removal particularly urgent is that as a signatory to the NPT, China — our main rival in international trade, and whose products threaten to displace home-made goods even in the Indian market — enjoys full access to these technologies despite having violated clauses interdicting the transfer of weapon-making technology. Now the playing field will become level if India is able to negotiate a satisfactory safeguards agreement with the IAEA for its civilian nuclear programme, and gets the NSG to lift its embargo.
All this has been made possible by the epochal changes in the international order after 9/11. These include India’s emergence as a significant economic power, a sudden spurt of appreciation and respect for its thriving democracy, and its scrupulous record in honouring international commitments. But these would not have sufficed if the major powers in the world had not felt the need to broaden the base of the informal consensus among larger countries to cope with the progressive disintegration of the international order, the spread of new threats that require collective action, the rapid decline of US hegemony, and its need for friends after its misadventure in Iraq.
Far from turning India into a puppet of the US, the Indo-US agreement requires India to assume some of the responsibility for maintaining order in an increasingly chaotic world. This is an immense responsibility, and one that can only be met if India is willing to consciously place the world’s interest above not only its own national interest, but also, more particularly, that of the US. In actual fact, the conflict between the two will be more imagined than real. But this will only become apparent to us when we stop thinking of what we can do for others, instead of what we should demand of them.