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Taken for a ride

The India-US nuclear deal is becoming more about symbolism than substance, writes Brahma Chellaney.

india Updated: Apr 03, 2007, 23:05 IST
Brahma Chellaney
Brahma Chellaney

A recurring theme in Indian foreign policy has been exuberance and embellishment followed by the painful dawn of realism and even disillusionment. Take the vaunted nuclear deal with the US. When it was sprung as a surprise on the nation in 2005, it came adorned with catchwords such as ‘historic’, ‘path-breaking’ and ‘a diplomatic coup’. By 2006, that exhilaration had given way to hard realities. And now in 2007, misgivings have begun to smite the establishment.

Talleyrand, the patriarch of modern diplomacy who served several French rulers, including Napoleon, set a central precept for pragmatic foreign policy: “Above all, not the slightest zeal.” Policy founded on grandiose, spur-of-the-moment initiatives and gushy expectations is antithetical to national interest.

Almost 33 years after its first nuclear test and nearly a decade after it declared itself a nuclear-weapons State (NWS), India still does not have a minimal, let alone a credible, deterrent, although it is the world’s only nation to face two adversarial and allied nuclear neighbours. India launched its nuclear programme before China but still lacks a rudimentary deterrent with the requisite reach.

Instead of addressing this glaring deficiency on a priority basis, what does India do? It puts its nuclear programme — its only strategic asset — on the negotiating table with the US and decides to profligately import more conventional weapons, although it embarrassingly remains the only large nation dependent on arms imports to meet basic defence needs.

How well thought-out the nuclear deal was can be seen from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s admission in Parliament on August 3, 2005: “The final draft came to me from the US side” only upon reaching Washington, and the absence of nuclear chief Anil Kakodkar in the delegation “held up our negotiations for about 12 to 15 hours”. The reasons he proffered for rushing into the deal were two-fold: nuclear power was essential to meet India’s burgeoning energy needs; and this was a ‘clean’ source of energy to fight climate change.

Before long, however, the government’s own energy policy report demolished the first reason, pointing out that the capital-intensive nuclear power could play only a marginal role in meeting energy needs. And the atomic authorities revealed an interest in importing only up to eight power reactors before switching to fast breeders. In fact, nuclear power’s current share of 2.9 per cent in India’s total electricity supply is projected to fall, not rise, over the next decade as the contribution of other energy sources rises faster.

As for the second reason, nuclear power’s front-end may be ‘clean’ but the back-end is remarkably dirty, with the safe disposal of radioactive wastes posing technical and environmental challenges. If the concern is climate change, the focus ought to be on the US, which produces 25 per cent of the global carbon dioxide emissions with only 4.5 per cent of the world’s population. It belches twice as much C0² per capita as Japan, despite similar per capita income. If the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter refuses to meet even the modest targets of the 1997 Kyoto treaty, should India pay for its energy sins?

Not a single reactor has been built in the US for three decades because nuclear power economics remain unfavourable despite tax concessions and other sops. Yet India craves to import a technology that US power producers shun as uneconomical. Global uranium prices alone have climbed 10-fold in five years. The best option for addressing energy security and climate change is offered by renewables, which today produce nearly a third of India’s electricity.

The Indian head-in-the-clouds approach, however, didn’t last long. Indeed, by March 2006, the PM had formally forsaken his solemn promises to get India the “same benefits and advantages” as the US and undertake only such “responsibilities and obligations” as applicable to NWSs. And by December 2006, New Delhi was actually crying foul after getting caught in a double-bind.

It complained that many provisions of the new India-specific Hyde Act were either “prescriptive” in ways incompatible with the deal or “extraneous” to engagement “between friends”. The PM went on to declare that “there are areas which continue to be a cause for concern”, while Kakodkar said the new US law has a “fairly large number of sections” that “contain or cap the Indian strategic programme”.

Never before in US history has a law been enacted imposing such numerous and mortifying conditions on an avowed strategic partner as the Hyde Act does freely over 41 pages — that too to permit restrictive cooperation in just one area. But had New Delhi controlled its zeal, it would have foreseen what was coming. After all, Washington never hid its non-proliferation aim to foil India’s rise as a full-fledged NWS. Rather than cry betrayal, New Delhi should own up to how it led itself up the garden path.

Today, with only the first of its five phases complete, the deal’s future remains uncertain. Indeed it is becoming more about symbolism than substance. It does not seek to lift the main sanctions hurting India — the panoply of export controls on advanced and dual-use technologies. Rather, in a classic case of seeking to give with one hand and take with the other, it legislatively underpins missile and space sanctions in return for a conditional loosening of civil nuclear controls. What the deal offers at the end of a long, conditions-laden process is something India can do without: the right to import high-priced power reactors dependent on external fuel supplies. By contrast, the strategic benefits it confers on the US are direct and immediate.

In one stroke, by merely dangling a carrot, the Bush administration advertised a supposed paradigm shift in its policy and helped bring New Delhi within its sphere of influence. Washington could not have done better than to employ a concession that remains more symbolic than concrete to dramatically alter perceptions in India and bring to fruition its larger strategic plan.

That the deal has brought India within the US strategic sphere is evident from a number of instances: the two Indian votes against Iran in Vienna; Indian acquiescence to an overt US role in countries in India’s strategic backyard, such as Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh; and the increasing alignment of Indian policy with US policy on Pakistan.

To be sure, US big business is keen the deal takes effect because tens of billions of dollars in potential arms and reactor contracts are tied to it. But by attaining a prime US strategic objective beforehand, the deal provides a much-needed feather for Bush’s empty cap. Whether the deal is realised or not is a matter the politically besieged Bush is glad to leave to bureaucrats to wrestle with.

In any event, by legalising a near-maximalist position and setting a high bar for India, the US sits pretty in the negotiations. A beseeching India now hankers for clarifications and small mercies, like assured fuel supply and spent-fuel reprocessing. At best, India can get semantic compromises that paper over fundamental differences and defer its day of reckoning. If and when India meets all the stipulated preconditions, the US Congress will have a second shot at vetting and approving the deal — and possibly adding more grating conditions. The ongoing process seems set to politically outlive the principal characters on both sides.

The deal (or really the lack of it) has already become an object lesson on how not to conduct diplomacy. Instead of following Talleyrand and Statecraft canons, India helped the US put into practice an inimitably American precept: “Diplomacy is letting the other party have your way.”

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