July 14, 2006

How India's Elite is Consciously Selling Out India's Nuclear Strengths

Deal pushers

- By Brahma Chellaney


The events that have followed since the nuclear deal was signed a year ago in Washington have tracked almost perfectly with what was apparent to all but the naïve and the suborned. The more the deal has unfolded, the greater the US demands have turned out to be and the clearer it has become that India is being made to accept exceptionally noxious obligations that no other nuclear power will stoop to even consider. To the acute embarrassment of the now-taciturn Prime Minister who has relied on a few self-serving bureaucrats, none of his assurances to the nation has come true.

Nary has a word been said by the PM since the US Senate and House committees rewrote the basic provisions of the deal and attached a string of demeaning conditions applicable to India. What was touted as a "deal" has turned into an undisguised diktat by a patron seeking to anoint a client. The PM’s silence has been deafening. Even the voluble foreign secretary, ever so ready to grant television interviews and hold forth in the style of a politician, has been unusually reticent.

The deal’s first anniversary is an occasion for sober reflection on how commitments to a foreign power on a programme that epitomises India’s pride and autonomy have generated intense national controversy and angst and displaced political consensus with partisanship, with paid lobbyists having a field day. Rarely before in India’s independent history has an issue so disconcerted the nation as this deal.

The government has consistently been misled by a handful of bureaucrats who have from the beginning minimised or obfuscated the negative and injurious elements of the deal and who continue to furnish positive assessments even after the attachment of humiliating conditions by the two US Congressional panels. Without a word having been said on record by the government, these self-servers have employed their favourite mechanism — background briefings and media plants — to actually welcome the wacky turn of events.

That only shows how they are caught in a hallucinatory loop of delusion imperilling the very security of the country. In fact, this perilous bent reflective of low self-esteem was brought to light much earlier when they scripted media attacks against the nuclear establishment, orchestrated a public charade on the fast-breeder programme and continued to pull wool on public eyes by planting newspaper stories through the same reporters.

Planting stories has become such a favoured means that the ministry of external affairs’ website shows there have been only five press briefings connected with the deal since March 1. Yet in the same period, scores of newspaper reports, quoting unnamed officials have appeared. Not a single on-the-record briefing has been held on the Congressional committee votes or the separate negotiations held recently in New Delhi with the International Atomic Energy Agency on an inspections regime and with the United States on a bilateral civil nuclear cooperation agreement.

With the Cabinet and Parliament in the dark, the deal-peddlers misinform and delude the public from behind the cover of anonymity and opacity. They do disservice both to Indian democracy and to the cause that ostensibly motivates them — closer engagement with the US. The deal already has become a major drag on the Indo-US relationship.

Furtively marketing perfidious compromises with national sovereignty and strategic autonomy, these civil servants take liberties with those they are supposed to serve — the Indian public. One nameless deal-pusher was quoted in a newspaper report on June 29 as saying: "Certainly, we find the language in the Bill intrusive and even offensive, but it is of little consequence as far as we are concerned…" Even if this bureaucrat big-headedly has come to see himself as "we," does he think the country has lost its self-respect the way he has?

The country is being held hostage by a teensy-weensy deal-peddling ring that has not only become a law unto itself but also insists on laying down the law to the nation. Can there be a matter of greater shame than the current spectacle, with several million dollars of Indian taxpayer money being expended to lobby US lawmakers to impose everlasting fetters on India’s prized strategic asset and decision-making autonomy, while the Indian Parliament is denied the right to even scrutinise the deal?

As they anxiously await the final outcome of their lobbying campaign in Washington, the deal-pushers have grievously miscalculated that they can get away by camouflaging or sugar-coating the increasingly debasing conditions being added to the deal by the US Congress. What the Senate and House committees did recently was to split the vetting process into two parts. In the first part, rather than approve the deal for implementation, Congress is imposing a series of egregious preconditions on India that reshape the fundamentals of the deal and eliminate even the pretence of reciprocity. With the full Congress yet to legislate the preconditions recommended by the two committees, Part I is far from complete.

In Part II, once India has met the preconditions fully and been tightly tethered to the non-proliferation regime once and for all, the US President would submit a legislative determination to give effect to the deal, with the rider that New Delhi’s conduct and actions would need to make the grade in the annual Congressional review being instituted.

Put simply, India is to be bonded to the US in perpetuity. In return, America will graciously allow India to revive the decrepit US nuclear power industry and further impoverish itself by importing high-priced commercial reactors dependent on imported fuel.

Having invested billions of dollars in such reactors, India will be allowed to import fuel for them only if it continued to abjure from actions and submit to US wishes as defined and laid out in the draft legislation. If it dared to defy the US, Section 102(6) of the Lugar-Biden Bill calls for exemplary punishment: the discontinuation of exports to India "by any other party." So much for the assurance that a Tarapur-style fuel cut-off will not be repeated in the future! Instead of being once bitten, twice shy, India is being encouraged to be twice bitten, yet never shy.

Redolent of the failed US attempts in the past to cap India’s nuclear ambitions, the deal is different only in packaging. Now it is a deal packaged to appeal to India’s self-interest by employing a double lure: nuclear energy and strategic partnership. In reality, it crimps India’s plans for a credible minimal deterrent and, more broadly, its strategic autonomy.

If the US wishes to be a true strategic partner, why doesn’t it lift the high-technology sanctions it maintains against India, especially those that don’t even need Congressional consent? Significantly, after making India do a civil-military segregation of its space programme, the US is loath to relax civilian space technology controls and is dragging its feet even on concluding a launch-services agreement with New Delhi.

In the nuclear realm, the more India has bowed to the US, the more conditions Washington has superimposed through executive or Congressional action. In March, the administration introduced a four-page Bill placing seven good-conduct conditions on India, including a permanent test ban with no termination clause. Those four pages have now become as many as 25 pages, with the Senate and House committees, in concert with the administration, piling a mound of conditions. The original deal now looks barely recognisable.

Any judicious person by now would be at the end of his or her tether. But not our deal-pushers.

With Part I not yet complete, this is the time for India to make clear — before the full US Congress legislates — what it plainly cannot accept. Yet, myopically, the deal-peddlers are welcoming the latest turn of events, thereby only encouraging Congress to keep the preconditions and India’s post-implementation bondage — and maybe even strengthen all that. This is proof, if any were needed, of how the deal-peddlers’ personal interests override national interests.

At the core of the ring (and the source of many media plants) are the perennially sick Indian representative in Washington and an over-exuberant MEA officer who does within the system what his father is doing from outside — manically lobby for the deal. To the credit of the dad, he boasts of a consistent record: he was for non-weaponised deterrence and against the nuclear tests; he campaigned for India’s signature on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; and now he hawks the deal. Having lost out in the past, he itches for victory now, to the extent that he has taken to name-calling. In an article in last week’s India Abroad, he says those cautioning against the deal are "small minds incapable of broad vision." Given that only a tiny clique is supporting the deal, India must be teeming with small-minded men and women!

In another article this week in an Indian multi-edition paper, he frantically presses the propaganda accelerator, contending among other things that "China has accepted much harsher conditions than India" just to secure uranium supplies from Australia. The truth is just the opposite: the text of what has been signed shows Beijing has accepted not a single legally binding condition that goes beyond the voluntary and revocable IAEA inspections it allows on a few facilities. Such is the fiction in which the deal is being gift-wrapped.

The progressively degrading conditions being imposed on India ought to give pause to the PM, whose credibility at home has taken a beating since signing the deal. The deal’s anniversary should serve as a reminder of the costs the country is being made to pay. One case in point is the Agni-III setback, with the maiden test-flight held up for half a year by a deal-obsessed PM.

When the increasingly beleaguered PM finally cleared the test, he did so to prop up his sagging image, choosing an odd time that coincided with an international furore over North Korea’s spate of missile tests. Had the Agni-III — a basic vehicle for a barely minimal deterrent against China — been tested when it first became ready, the scientists by now would have corrected the technical hitch.

It is still not late for the PM to make amends and let the deal lapse on grounds that the US has unilaterally altered the terms of the original deal, rendering the accord inoperative. After all, instead of meeting its part of the bargain, the US is putting the onus on India — in perpetuity. For the PM to change course and stanch mounting national concerns, he needs to bust the deal-peddling ring and clean up the policy mess it has made. The other option — to hew to the deal — carries the risk of irreparable damage to his credibility and to national interests. If the nation is being harmed, President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam is constitutionally bound to intervene — and he will.

Unknown to the deal-pushers, the breaking point on the deal has been reached. And their day of reckoning is arriving.

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