Three days after touching down, U.S. President George Bush departed Indian shores, leaving in his wake an aura of overall contentment. After all the apprehensions built up over the weeks prior, there had been quite a dramatic turnaround in the public mood. A deal opening up civilian nuclear cooperation with India was expected to be the centrepiece of Bush’s visit and he did not disappoint. But far from being something that had to be forced upon a reluctant Indian government – or at least some sections of it -- the deal proved to have enough for everybody.
The Indian nuclear establishment which had initially resisted the deal that involved a segregation of military and civilian facilities, finally found little to complain about. And for foreign policy ideologues, who had long argued that autonomy in nuclear affairs would not be too high a sacrifice for winning U.S. benediction in global councils, the Bush visit was long overdue wish-fulfilment.
India’s Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) by voicing the early dissent on the nuclear separation plan, succeeded in placing itself squarely at the left end of the domestic political spectrum. The point they had was very simple: to place a number of key nuclear installations within the civilian perimeter would seriously impair India’s energy and strategic security.
It was argued by some that the DAE case may have been premised upon a gigantic misrepresentation. Safeguards as enforced by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) do not prohibit material transactions within the nuclear industry. Rather, they only seek to check the diversion of fissile material for explicitly military purposes. The DAE in other words, would not suffer any constraints in transferring material between different programs, if it is able to square the material audits.
The DAE suffered some respectful admonitions from the strategic community for its obduracy. The more reasonable critics, mindful of the dangers of a nuclear arms race in the region, urged greater transparency. If the DAE’s claims on the performance of its reactors were taken at face value, they argued, India would already be holding fissile stocks sufficient to meet its professed strategic aim of “minimum credible deterrence”.
Loyalists within the fourth estate were soon playing out the “threat inflation” game, purveying for public consumption the obvious fiction that India has already yielded strategic pre-eminence to Pakistan. Unless a sufficiently large part of nuclear R&D was placed within the military fence, they warned rather direly, India would fall further behind its hostile western neighbour.
These arguments were partly rehearsed within the Government to influence the public mood and to firm up the Indian bargaining position. In the event, agreement proved far easier than expected, effectively being clinched just hours into Bush’s visit. India has succeeded in keeping 35 percent of installed nuclear power capacity, spent fuel reprocessing and all crucial R&D programs – like the fast breeder and the advanced heavy water reactor – out of the civilian list. All future power reactors would be placed under safeguards, but only on condition of assured fuel supply.
When the first, rudimentary outlines of the nuclear deal were announced last July, expert assessment in the U.S. concluded that it was unwise and deeply corrosive of the non-proliferation regime. To salvage anything of credibility out of the framework, they argued, it was imperative that India should agree to a fissile material cutoff at an early date.
India was averse to this for reasons all too clear. Even with the qualifying words “minimum” and “credible” attached, nuclear deterrence is a slippery slope that admits of no restraint in its transition to the insanity of “mutually assured destruction”. By deftly pre-empting the space on the left of the spectrum, the DAE may have just managed to deflect the possibility of public debate on this question.
However, the first down payment on the deal with the U.S. fell due rather rapidly. Within days of Bush’s Indian visit, the IAEA met in Vienna to debate the Iranian nuclear research program. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had, just hours before, spoken to Russian President Vladimir Putin, seeking to ensure that the debate remained confined within the IAEA. He also upheld India’s belief that Iran should have access to the full range of nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes.
A last-minute Russian gambit failed, which would have transferred industrial scale uranium enrichment out of Iran, allowing that country only the limited option of laboratory scale experiments. Rudely flouting the assurance of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that every member-state has the right to access nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes, the U.S. has repeatedly announced that Iran cannot be trusted with any stage of the nuclear fuel cycle. The most recent affirmations – from Vice President Dick Cheney and U.N. ambassador John Bolton -- came at the policy conference of the American-Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC), which devoted a substantial part of its three-day annual event to Iran.
Using the same platform, Daniel Gillerman, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., engaged in a rhetorical flourish that could have been taken straight out of any political bigot’s notebook: “While it may be true -- and probably is -- that not all Muslims are terrorists, it also happens to be true that nearly all terrorists are Muslim”.
India has reason to worry about the company it is getting into. Addressing a carefully chosen audience in the picturesque environs of Delhi’s Purana Qila, Bush announced just before he left, that the U.S. and India are today “closer than ever before”. Indeed, there was no way that the two countries could shirk their common destiny of “leadership in the cause of democracy”. Should India buy into these rather quirky definitions – whether of “terrorism” or “democracy” -- it may well find itself a house divided against itself. And that would be a steep price to pay for the illusory security of nuclear deterrence.