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Stretching the truth

Phoney claims are being repeated to mould public perceptions about the India-US civilian nuclear deal, writes Brahma Chellaney.

india Updated: Sep 17, 2008 20:15 IST

As if the corrosion of its State institutions was not enough, India is being pummelled by an officially-scripted onslaught of half-truths and outright deception over the vaunted Indo-US nuclear deal. Phoney claims are being repeated even after they stand publicly discredited by President George W. Bush’s latest ‘Hyde Package’ to Congress and his administration’s earlier leaked letter to a congressional panel. It is as if truth no longer matters.

Can the obsessive deal-peddling take precedence over everything? Has no thought been given to the lasting damage that an unabashedly partisan approach relying on politicised bureaucrats and spin doctors would wreak? If the refusal to hold the traditional monsoon session of Parliament is unprecedented — setting a precedent toxic for the future of democracy — no less ominous is the deliberate spread of a slew of distortions to push the deal-making, without the consensus-building Prime minister Manmohan Singh had promised. Making false claims without any qualms, especially to cover up broken promises to Parliament, is no mean matter.

The US says loudly the deal is fully governable by its Hyde Act, an India-specific NPT. But New Delhi still markets the loosely-worded 123 agreement as the only binding document — an accord that actually arms the US with a unilateral right to suspend cooperation ‘immediately’. Bush publicly asserts that the 123 agreement’s fuzzy fuel-supply assurances do not “transform these political commitments into legally- binding commitments”. Recipient India responds by trying to give international-law lessons to supplier America.

The leaked letter embarrassingly discloses that “the Indian government shares our understanding” that fuel-supply assurances are not “meant to insulate India against the consequences of a nuclear-explosive test or a violation of non-proliferation commitments”. The letter derides as “a high-level of generality” the PM’s claim in Parliament about the linkage between ‘lifetime’ fuel supply and perpetual international inspections.

The PM tells Parliament that India has “secured upfront” a “permanent consent” to reprocess spent fuel. Bush publicly contradicts him by saying this right “will not come into effect until India establishes a new national reprocessing facility” and agrees to special “arrangements and procedures” with the US in the years ahead. And Bush’s ‘Nuclear Proliferation Assessment Statement’ attests that the reprocessing consent, once granted, can be withdrawn. However, inadvertently, Washington has helped bust several other Indian claims, including that New Delhi has accepted inspections only by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Yet, deal-aggrandising distortions continue to swirl at such a pace that they get picked up and recycled as facts by a pliable media before anyone can controvert them. Flogging fabrications indeed has proven so useful in shaping public perceptions that claims are becoming more brazen. Take the claim that the deal marks the end of the technology-control regime against India.

Easing high-technology and civilian-space export controls is not even part of this deal. What the deal seeks to open are lucrative exports for ‘IAEA-safeguarded’ Indian facilities while specifically denying dual-use technologies. In return for being allowed to import commercial power reactors and fuel under tight safeguards, India has been made to accept conditions that no nuclear-weapons State will countenance.

Bush’s ‘Hyde Package’ makes clear the US has no intent to allow any sensitive transfers, including of civil enrichment and reprocessing technology. The Nuclear Suppliers’ Group waiver, similarly, is based on an understanding not to export sensitive items to India. This understanding, reflected in the various national statements, part of the negotiating record, should be seen against the Hyde Act’s open call to “further restrict the transfers of such equipment and technologies”.

Indeed, Section 3(a) of the NSG waiver explicitly ties exports to India to the NSG Guidelines’ Paragraphs 6 and 7, which incorporate a presumption of denial of sensitive items. This restriction is reinforced by the Guidelines’ Part 2, Paragraph 4. With the NSG nearing consensus to impose an overt ban on sensitive sales to a non-NPT State like India, what is now implicit will become explicit. As for dual-use technologies, the NSG Guidelines already annex an exhaustive list of such items barred for export.

Contrast this with the PM’s July 22 contention in Parliament that the deal frees “trade in dual-use high technologies” and his September 6 claim that the NSG waiver “marks the end… of the technology-denial regime”. All technology controls against India ought to go. But even after the deal takes effect, India will still face barriers to high-technology flow, including the US Commerce Department’s dual-use export controls. The US Congress, for instance, has cross-linked civil nuclear cooperation to the continuance of US export controls against New Delhi in an unrelated area, with the Hyde Act stipulating that the US missile sanctions law (which prohibits dual-use space exports) will still apply to India even after it “unilaterally adheres” (as it quietly did last week) to the Missile Technology Control Regime.

If high-technology and civilian-space trade is to be opened fully, it will require New Delhi to do more than pull the wool on public eyes at home — persuade Washington to apply to India the same standards it does to another non-NPT State, Israel. The partisan rancour springing from the deal’s political mismanagement has done India a great disservice. The truth-stretching threatens to do worse.

Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi