Deal, not ordeal
The Indo-US nuclear deal is the best India could have got, ever. Consider. In the Seventies, we set a target of having 10,000 MW of nuclear power by 2000.india Updated: Mar 10, 2006 02:25 IST
The Indo-US nuclear deal is the best India could have got, ever. Consider. In the Seventies, we set a target of having 10,000 MW of nuclear power by 2000. In 2006, the number stands at 3,310 MW. The cause? A global US-led embargo on India’s nuclear programme which is becoming tighter by the year. In 2001, Russia supplied fuel for the Tarapur nuclear power plant and agreed to construct two reactors in Koodankulam. Come 2004, they regretted their inability to do anything more because of Nuclear Suppliers Group restrictions.
Consider now the deal. In exchange for increasing safeguarded plants from 19 to 65 per cent of the installed power capacity, the embargo is lifted. The icing on the cake: India retains its nuclear weapons, as well as 35 per cent of its reactor capacity to make as many weapons as it wishes in the coming years.
Yet, despite its almost pristine simplicity, the India-US nuclear deal is proving uncommonly difficult to understand and accept. Across the US, sections of the intelligentsia are appalled at the president’s decision to give India an exception from its tough non-proliferation policy. In India, a part of the opposition, the Left, understands what it is all about —larger geopolitical alignments that will bring India and America closer. Because of their ideological dislike for the US, they would have, in any case, opposed any bargain, no matter how beneficial it was for India.
Clearly, the US did not need a nuclear deal with India for technical reasons. The claims about the putative benefit to US business interests, too, are highly exaggerated. The American-led restraint regime has successfully crippled India’s nuclear power industry. Even today, the most mature Indian power reactor design is of merely 220 MW capacity, while the international norm for the past decade and more has been around 1,000 MW. True, India now has a 540 MW reactor going. But it is also manifestly clear that it is now running short of natural uranium to fuel even the reactors under construction. So in working out the arrangement that will allow India to import fuel and turnkey high-capacity reactors, the US is doing India a favour, no matter which way you look at it.
The natural question is: why? Why is the US giving India a helping hand? George Bush’s claim that it will ease the pressure on global hydrocarbon resources is only part of the explanation. Though India desperately needs all the power it can get today, nuclear power will only begin to form a significant part of the energy mix after 2030.
The real answer lies in geopolitics. For 40 years till the Soviet collapse in 1989, India’s relations with the US was worked through the prism of the Cold War. In practical terms it meant two bouts of American alliances with Pakistan — first in the mid-Fifties and then in the Eighties—aimed at containing and fighting the Soviet Union. Pakistan, however, misused these alliances to fight India and the militarisation of its polity prevented a reasonable settlement of the Kashmir dispute. Following the Cold War, and the awareness of the Pakistani nuclearisation, American attitudes began to be coloured by non-proliferation concerns.
In the Nineties, the US came up with a variety of regional and global initiatives to corral the Indian and Pakistani nuclear programmes, but failed spectacularly when both countries tested nuclear weapons in May 1998. Simultaneously, it also attempted to push for a resolution of the Kashmir dispute, described as a ‘nuclear flashpoint’ in US literature.
These fin-de-siècle trends began to change following 9/11. The US had for long been India’s largest trading partner, but by 2001 many US companies also began to see business process outsourcing to India as a means of remaining competitive. Indian software companies began to appear on the American radar. In early 2005, the National Intelligence Council, a think-tank associated with the CIA, noted in a report that China and India would emerge as major global players by 2020 and that their impact will be similar to that of the emergence of the US in the early 20th century. The report observed that the combination of high economic growth, expanding military capabilities and large populations “will be at the root of the expected rise in economic and political power for both countries”. The view on China was no surprise. But India had only registered in American minds as an exotic destination, a problem State and a nuclear flashpoint.
After America’s world was turned upside down by the attack by Islamic radicals, the US began to see some congruence with India, which had been facing such attacks through most of the preceding decade. When the US hauled off all the Islamic militants it could lay its hands on to Guantanamo Bay, there was not a single Indian Muslim found among them. This awareness came with the sharp American disillusionment with Pakistan which had been the major supporter and sustainer of the Taliban. Even though the US needed continuing close ties with Pakistan, it soon realised that its wider Asian interests demanded much sounder ties with a strong and stable India, a proven bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism. Coincidentally then, the Indo-US nuclear deal that pointedly excludes Pakistan, also marks a giant step towards de-hyphenation of India and Pakistan in the minds of Washington policy-makers.
Much has been made of the China factor in US plans. Undoubtedly it is there, but not in the way it is being peddled. In the firmament of Asia, China is a shining star, its gravitational pull becoming more powerful by the day. Whether it wants it or not, this force is shifting Asia’s tectonic plates. Japan may have the economic strength and Russia military power and natural resources. But only India has the combination of population, geographical spread, economic and military potential to exert a similar pull. It also has, in generous measure, an additional element — soft power. Indian movies, music and media, its cuisine, and parts of its higher education system exert their own power around the world. Its noisy democracy that avows liberal values is both resilient and creative. The best proof of its potential lies in the fact that it has achieved high growth rates with a fraction of the FDI China has used, and that too on an infrastructure that is no one’s envy.
The US has no plans to get into an adversarial relationship with China, and is not likely to encourage countries like India to follow that route. After all the US and China are each other’s major trading partners and any negative development there would shake the global economy as nothing else could. What the US seeks is the help of a constellation of like-minded powers — Japan, the EU and possibly Russia — to ensure that the unstoppable rise of China is not too destabilising.
The US is unlikely to find a military ally in the European or Japanese sense in India. What it will find is a country with largely similar views on global issues and common threat perceptions. This is but natural between countries that share a similar political and economic ethos, notwithstanding the great asymmetry in their situation. A humbler Washington no longer ignores New Delhi’s advice on jehadi terrorism. And India, for its part, needs all the support it can in dealing with Nepal and Bangladesh. There is probably more correspondence on their views on Pakistan than they would care to admit openly. Both countries share the strategic goal of preserving stability in the Persian Gulf.
So that’s the trade off — a technical fix for a big Indian problem of meeting its burgeoning energy demand, without constraining its strategic autonomy. In exchange the US gains the confidence, and befriends, a rising regional power whose succcess can ease the global transition to a new world order.