Exactly two years after Manmohan Singh and George W Bush signalled their intent to fast-track India’s return to the international nuclear order, closure on the civil nuclear cooperation deal is finally at hand. Since July 18, 2005, scientists, journalists, bombwallahs, peaceniks and politicians in India have been analysing every comma, full stop and article of American domestic law and the March 2006 separation plan. A full-throated debate has also taken place in the US, with non-proliferation specialists, many of whom worked on President Bill Clinton’s team, joining issue with Bush and his officials that India was being given too much by a Republican President.
Though Parliament will be treated to some fiery speeches when discussing the terms of the draft, the text is now frozen and neither Singh nor Bush has any leeway in altering the language. Most important, the constituency that was said to have ‘opposed’ the terms of the deal, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), is on board, as reflected in the comments made by DAE Secretary Anil Kakodkar himself.
Much was made of the so-called divisions between the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the DAE establishment, which was said to be stalling progress in negotiations on the deal after the July 2005 joint statement was issued. Some pro-deal-at-any-cost elements were horrified to read Kakodkar stating in February 2006 that asking for specific nuclear facilities to be placed under safeguards amounted to shifting the goalposts in the deal. Had he spoken out of turn? At a joint press conference on July 27, 2007, Kakodkar made a significant revelation: “Whatever I had said earlier was a part of the national position; whatever I am saying now is also a part of the national position; and whatever this agreement has achieved is also consistent with the national position. So I have no reason to be unhappy.” In a sense, the ‘differences’ in approach between the DAE and the MEA might have actually helped India stick to its guns in the negotiations with the Americans.
<b1>In June, after talks with US Under Secretary Nicholas Burns, Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon addressed a press conference. Significantly, Ravi Grover of the DAE was one of those sitting next to Menon. It was a public signal that the Indian negotiating position was a unified one. India’s right to reprocess spent nuclear fuel supplied under the agreement, its right to conduct a future nuclear test and having safeguards against an abrupt termination of civil nuclear cooperation are part and parcel of the draft 123 accord.
Of course, India could have got more — sourcing reprocessing/enrichment technologies from the US, for instance. However, while conceding that Washington has said no to supplying such technologies, officials said there is a window of opportunity still open to access these. But this is not a perfect agreement. In any negotiation, you win some and you lose some. India hasn’t got everything it wanted. But it has safeguarded its sovereignty of decision-making in critical areas.Also, senior government officials have been at pains to emphasise that ‘123’ does not equal ‘126’ — the number of multi-role fighter aircraft that India plans to buy in the near future from the international market. In response to a question that the Americans were not in the habit of giving free lunches, National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan responded, “We have never kept countries captive to [defence] deals of this kind. This is an open transparent effort. As far as I am concerned, I have not seen any evidence of a deal that give(s) us the 123 and we will give you [the US] something.” Narayanan rightly pointed out that the Americans would have been in the race to bag the Indian purchase order for 126 aircraft in any case, deal or no deal. India is growing at almost 10 per cent annually and presents a huge economic opportunity. New Delhi will be purchasing billions of dollars worth of nuclear reactors once the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) changes its guidelines and the US Congress approves the 123 text. Interestingly, once the NSG allows nuclear commerce with India, the US will no longer be the only source from where New Delhi can purchase nuclear supplies. Russia, France and Germany, among others, would be options, in conditions where there is no foreign legislature breathing down our necks.
In Parliament, the government faces flak from both the BJP and the Left. While the Left believes that the agreement will draw India into a tight embrace with the US, the BJP is talking of the ‘impact’ on the country’s strategic programme and the right to test a nuclear weapon again. The fact is that India will be in a position to test — but it will come at a cost — like in 1974 and 1998. The US has promised to look at the strategic context before terminating cooperation under the agreement. On September 24, 1998, speaking at the UN General Assembly, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had said. “Accordingly, after concluding this limited testing programme [May 1998], India announced a voluntary moratorium on further underground nuclear test explosions. We conveyed our willingness to move towards a de jure formalisation of this obligation.” This shows that the NDA government was prepared to enter into a formal agreement that India would not conduct any more nuclear tests.
Even as political compulsions to 'oppose' will be in motion this week, Indian politicians need to see this civil nuclear deal not as a strategic dead-end, but as an opportunity for Indian scientists to engage with the best and the brightest at an equal level. With more money and clout today, India must set its own strategic course: friendly with all, but allied to none. Independence of decision-making should come easier to India at 60.