Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Explaining the Mundane, Excluding Voices of Dissent

Review Article
Harsh V. Pant, The US-India Nuclear Pact: Policy, Process and Great Power Politics, Oxford University Press, Delhi, Delhi, 2011, pp xii + 150, Rs 450; ISBN 0-19-807396-8.

Early in this book, Harsh V. Pant, a lecturer at King’s College, London, does a subtle but fairly effective job of puncturing some of the more fanciful conceptions of nuclear nationalism. “Nuclear weapons do retain their relevance in international politics”, he writes, “but it is increasingly a very limited one”. If there is any reason why major world powers retain nuclear arsenals, it is for political purposes rather than with intent to use them. This being the case, “India’s nuclear doctrine of credible minimum deterrence serves its interests well in the near to medium term”. However, any “over investment either intellectual or financial, in this realm, might even be counterproductive”.

No further clarity is offered on the soundness of the Indian nuclear doctrine, perhaps because that is peripheral to the main focus of this book. Pant’s approach is to study the dialogue between the U.S. and India that began soon after the Indian nuclear tests in 1998, and gained traction after Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to the U.S. in July 2005. That visit opened up the first glimmer of a pathway out of the uneasy limbo that India had long inhabited in the global nuclear order. And among the first steps that India needed to take along that pathway, was to clearly distinguish between its military and civilian nuclear facilities.

The analysis in this volume considers the trajectory of India’s negotiations with the U.S., which culminated in what was then described as a “historic” agreement on nuclear technology and trade. Pant proceeds along three different levels at which he sees the deal being consummated: the international strategic context, the domestic political domain in the two countries, and finally, but very importantly, the commitments and concerns of specific individuals.

Mundane events and processes are often rendered profound by merely adding to them the prefix “nuclear”. The “nuclear” dialogue between India and the U.S. consumed much of the time and attention of the strategic establishment through Manmohan Singh’s first term as Indian Prime Minister. The media too caught the infection, transforming the public discourse into an echo chamber where dissent was given little space and the official dialogue, faithfully reproduced. And all this was about a weapons capability that virtually everybody recognised, would never be used and an energy source that contributed less than three percent to the country’s total electricity generation.

By what criterion then, could the public debate over the U.S.-India nuclear agreement be considered a worthwhile investment of time and intellectual effort? Pant is sceptical about the practical utility of nuclear weapons and does not venture into the patchy record of nuclear energy generation in India. Yet he sees the nuclear deal as important in symbolic terms, since after years of estrangement, it provided a point of convergence for the strategic interests of the U.S. and India.

Do the potential benefits emanating from this symbolism, justify the effort and political capital invested in bringing the deal to fruition? Pant recognises that the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan may cast a pall over the ambitious targets drawn up by India’s Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). But then in one of many passages where his own authorial judgment blends seamlessly into the claims made by the political leadership that negotiated the deal, he prounounces that “India cannot realistically hope to ignore nuclear power in the future and making electricity from nuclear power remains far less damaging to human health than making it from coal, oil, or even lean-burning natural gas”.

Since Pant’s book was published, a nuclear power plant nearing completion in Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu, has been temporarily abandoned after people living in the locality laid siege to it. Early tests of some of the systems at the plant led to waves of anxiety about the security of lives and livelihoods in the near neighbourhood. And in Jaitapur on the Konkan coast, plans to build the world’s largest nuclear electricity generation capacity in a single location have been set back by a revolt of the people who stand to lose farms and homes as the cordon sanitaire for the monstrously large 9,900 MW plant is imposed.

What possible benefit can the nuclear option bring that other energy sources cannot? The vision of the early planners was that the nuclear option was the surest guarantee of independence and autonomy. This vision had India overcoming the handicaps of a late start and making a rapid ascent of the learning curve by focusing its scientific efforts narrowly in the nuclear domain. A three stage nuclear energy programme was planned, beginning with natural uranium fuel, then moving to fast breeder reactors powered by plutonium and finally ending with the cornucopia of electricity generated from thorium.

Over a half-century since the blueprint was drawn up, the DAE revealed that domestic uranium availability was, contrary to the early promise, rather paltry. And this is after the primary area of uranium mining in the country -- Jaduguda in present-day Jharkhand state – had been stricken by an epidemic of ill-health and disease as an apparent consequence of the DAE’s activities.

The DAE figures only incidentally in Pant’s diligent effort to understand the various actors on the grand panorama of the nuclear dialogue. It is an omission that is not surprising, since the department remained discretely on the sidelines, except for a famous February 2006 outburst by the DAE head, Anil Kakodkar, about the U.S. “shifting the goalposts” in the nuclear dialogue. At key junctures, the main personalities involved in the dialogue, who have all been given due credit in Pant’s narrative, ensured they had the DAE onside. But the DAE role in the nuclear dialogue with the U.S. will be remembered basically for Kakodkar’s insistence that it would not under any circumstances, allow its fast-breeder test reactor (FBTR) at Kalpakkam to be designated as a civilian facility, subject to international safeguards.

As the cornerstone of the second phase of India’s nuclear energy programme, the FBTR should by any reckoning, have been classified as a civilian facility. But the DAE thought differently. The point that Kakodkar made in his intervention was simply that “long term energy security” and the sustenance of India’s “minimum credible deterrent”, required that the FBTR be kept out of the safeguards regime.

Clearly, the DAE’s discomfiture was primarily occasioned by the fact that it had for very long been used to working with few internal walls of separation between its activities. The civilian nuclear effort was known to feed into the weapons effort both in terms of material transactions and personnel transfers. The FBTR is in a manner of speaking the atomic age equivalent of the scientific fantasy of the “perpetual motion machine” – it produces plutonium fuel even as it burns it. Despite having other reactors dedicated exclusively to weapons grade fuel production, the DAE’s ardour in protecting the FBTR from international scrutiny spoke of some uncertainty over how “minimum” a nuclear deterrent could be for it to be “credible”. The Indian nuclear weapons doctrine in other words, was well advanced along the slippery slope that “deterrence” was always known to be.

Pant rightly observes that the DAE’s revolt may have been an inconvenience to the progress of the negotiations, though it was ultimately turned to advantage in securing better terms for India. His focus is on how the states party to the negotiations sought to manoeuvre and secure their best advantage in the context of the global configuration of forces. Their conduct followed certain idioms of political behaviour: realism and its variants. The U.S. was impelled by the need to find a strategic counterweight to growing Chinese influence in the Asian landmass. And India was moved by like motives, its sense of negotiating purpose strengthened by a gestalt shift in perceptions from third world romanticism to robust calculations of realpolitik. In seeking their partly congruent ends, both states negotiated the delicate terrain of domestic opinion with surefooted ease, ensuring that key constituencies were placated or neutralised.

This beguiling tale of negotiations moving towards a happy outcome, omits the two crucial factors of nationalist vanity and security anxiety. The bond between nuclear capability and national prestige still remains strong in the imagination of the Indian elite. Its dangerous consequence today is that the revolt of the silent majority against the dislocations of a massive expansion of nuclear capacity, is ascribed to external agents intent on sabotaging India’s rise to global preeminence. Security anxieties had their play when at key junctures, stories were featured in sections of the country’s media – bearing the obvious imprint of self-interested plants by the strategic establishment – suggesting that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal threatened to outstrip India’s and questioning China’s good faith.

Pant does not pause for long to consider the implications of the U.S.-India nuclear deal on the global disarmament dialogue, such as it is. His concern is limited to the impact on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and its perceived legitimacy. And this is a question that he passes over with an airy generalisation about “international regimes (being) merely reflections of global power realities”.

This is all very well as far as it goes. But rather than candidly identify the impact that “global power realities” had on India’s own conduct, Pant chooses to gloss the issue over. Thus, the two votes that India cast to censure Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board, for treaty violations that were if anything, borderline in nature, are mentioned in anodyne and offhand terms: “It is not clear what part U.S. pressure played in India’s decision …. but the Bush administration made it clear that if India voted against the U.S. motion, the U.S. Congress would likely not approve the U.S.-India nuclear agreement”.

Quite in contrast with the elite perception in India, the nuclear deal was seen internationally to be in serious ethical deficit. The Guardian in London, for instance, commented that the nuclear deal was about “about breaking rules and expecting others to abide by them”. More picturesquely put, it was about “preaching temperance from the barstool”.

In advance of the 2006 Bush visit to India, The New York Times similarly observed that despite all the accompanying froth, the presidential passage to India was “built around a bad nuclear deal”. With the deal consummated, the newspaper commented rather acidly, that Bush was turning out to be Iran’s best friend. His adventure in Iraq, launched on flimsy and fabricated evidence, had transformed that country into a satellite of the Islamic Republic next door. And his deal with India sent “exactly the wrong message”, since Iran’s hopes of thwarting a global consensus on its nuclear programme rested on “convincing the rest of the world that the West (was) guilty of a double standard on nuclear issues”.

Even if he chooses to ignore the wider context and the ethical dilemmas, Pant’s narrative would, to be of value, need to factor in changing power equations and their impact on the range of benefits accruing from the nuclear deal. He is concerned that since the Bush regime ended its tenure in something akin to global ignominy and was succeeded by one more mindful of the need for consistent standards in multilateral matters, the prospects inherent in the nuclear deal have seriously diminished. Pant sees some features of the Nuclear Liability Bill passed by the Indian parliament following the conclusion of the deal, as a potential disincentive to investors in nuclear energy. A key difficulty he identifies, is the provision of the law which in the event of an accident, would hold liable the operator of the nuclear plant as well as the vendor of equipment.

This was the inevitable consequence of the need for compromise within a democratic space. But there is abundant irony in the reticence of the major vendors to enter a market where they would have to bear legal liability for an accident, when the DAE and its spokespersons have ardently been seeking to foster the impression that modern nuclear power plants are absolutely fail-safe. As Suvrat Raju and M.V. Ramana, physicists and campaigners for nuclear disarmament, recently put it in the context of the agitation against the Kundankulam plant: “When nuclear companies are unwilling to stake their financial health on these claims of ‘100% safety’, how can the government ask local residents to risk their lives?” (“Why Kudankulam is untenable”, The Hindu, November 12, 2011, editorial page.)

The point needs serious reflection, at a time when the strategic establishment, counting on the reflexive nationalism of the elite, is seeking to identify a “foreign hand” behind the rising tide of protest over nuclear location decisions. And for analysts who focus exclusively on the currency of power, it is a long overdue lesson on the gulf that separates popular aspirations from the overblown claims of nuclear nationalism.

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