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123, buckle our shoes

The not-so-civil non-dialogue over the 123 agreement, with passionate expressions of pride and prejudice, is in temporary recess, reports Deb Mukharji.

india Updated: Sep 11, 2007, 00:00 IST
Deb Mukharji
Deb Mukharji
Hindustan Times

The civilian nuclear deal has to be seen in the context of growing strategic ties between the US and India. To that end, we must ensure that the deal is independent of the uncertainties of national laws.

The not-so-civil non-dialogue over the 123 agreement, with passionate expressions of pride and prejudice, is in temporary recess. The strenuous efforts of politicians and commentators have failed to shed sufficient light to illuminate the dark areas of difference. The citizen is still unsure whether the Hyde Act is the only internal matter for Washington to sort out, as claimed by the Indian government, or whether it could impact adversely the 123 agreement’s future.

The government’s claim that the Agreement releases India from the shackles of nuclear apartheid has merit. Calculations of its benefits for our energy security are indeed tempting. Expectations of the withdrawal of restrictions on the availability of dual-use technology hold out the promise of an even brighter future for industry. Our strategic nuclear programme remains unaffected. Why then the storm of criticism?

The reality is that the debate is not so much on the 123 agreement as on the nature of the growing strategic relationship between India and the US. A partnership confined to economic linkages is different from a perceived subsidiary foreign policy as seen in the ‘coerced’ Iran vote at the IAEA, as claimed by an American official, or the visit of the Nimitz. We are reminded by American negotiators that the realities of the present world should be acted upon. We are advised within India that in the foreseeable struggle for supremacy between the US and China, it would be in our interest to assist the former in retaining its present pre-eminence. Such attitudes cannot co-exist with dreams of self-reliance and self-confidence. We should also ponder our reactions if our immediate neighbours take to a variety of foreign embraces and military linkages.

Relations between New Delhi and Washington have been at an all-time high. It was entirely unnecessary to depict the Agreement as the symbol, if not the touchstone, of this relationship. A failure to negotiate an agreement, or for a stalled agreement, is an unnecessary hiccup in Indo-US relations.

The ground and the justification for the Agreement has shifted over the last two years. Initially justified on the grounds of energy security, it was to be invested the aura of putting India on the high table of international affairs, an extension of the same urge that had prompted the quest for a permanent seat on the Security Council. If the NDA had its dreams of Shining India, the UPA apparently wants to bank on its international image and relevance. The people have shown their contempt of the Shining India campaign and may be equally dismissive of the lure of a place at the high table.

Given the current global context (and public opinion within the US) it was an act of considerable courage to describe George W. Bush as the best friend India ever had in the White House. The fact is that in the nature of the American system, the assurances given by Bush are, at best, valid only for his term. The next incumbent may well be induced to take a different view about Indian obligation to support US foreign policy objectives. It may also be recalled that even friend Bush has not always been very clear or consistent on whether he considers that India possesses advanced nuclear technology, interpreted by Indians to imply an euphemism for nuclear weapons and the very premise on which the Agreement is based.

Assertions alone of a landmark success do not allay concerns about the future of our strategic nuclear programme. Whether or not this has been or is a course worth pursuing is a separate debate meriting national consensus. But the issue of future tests being contingent on external stimuli does not take into account the possible need to do so for purposes of validation. There appears to be uncertainty on the issue of reprocessing, even after explicit assurances from the US. The UPA is assertive about the unparalleled privileges accorded to India, while there is obfuscation on the issue of the primacy of national laws — made applicable to India but not to China.

It is important to underline that 123 is an enabling agreement. It acquires value and validity only after India’s agreement
with the IAEA on safeguards and the crucial negotiations with the NSG. The government’s argument runs that once linkages are established, no country, particularly France and Russia, would want to snap those links and it is a display of lack of self-assurance not to believe that we can deal with any exigency in the future. We need to be assured that such exigencies would not lead to more instances of coercion. Responsible governments are not expected to enter into such critical agreements on the basis of possible expectations. The least that is necessary is to ensure that our commitments to the IAEA do not lead to a cul de sac and that the agreement with the NSG has an assurance of stability, without the uncertainties of national laws or transient presidents.

Deb Mukharji is former Indian ambassador to Nepal and Bangladesh

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