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N-deal: Be careful what you wish for

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Last updated on: February 27, 2006 17:24 IST

Part I: Time to redeem or reject nuclear deal

The July 18 India-US Joint Statement was a victory of sorts, although it did not warrant the kind of triumphant jubilation that the Manmohan Singh government orchestrated through the media.

That 'victory' itself was made up of many objects of desire -- acknowledgement of India as a rising global power; an invitation from the lone superpower to partner it on global issues, co-produce weapons systems and transformational technologies; and certainly vindication, at least in part, of India's decades-old stand against the nuclear apartheid championed against it by that very superpower.

How did it all get reduced to one issue -- civil nuclear cooperation -- which now threatens to push us right into the jaws of defeat? Indeed, defeat it is seeming to be. Conditions have been piled up on India like war reparations demands on a defeated power.

Uttam Ghosh: The Yankees are Coming!

The answer lies in the multiple levels of failure of Indian diplomacy since the Joint Statement.

First, the nuclear deal should never have been raised to the level of 'be all and end all' of India-US partnership building. Yet, this was exactly what the Indian negotiating team did. As Nicholas Burns told the US Congress: 'India had made this the central issue in the new partnership developing between our countries.'

It is terrible diplomacy to ask for something by declaring that you can't live without it. When one does so, the price one has to pay for it goes up. The more desperation one shows, as the Manmohan Singh government and a section of the Indian press have done over the nuclear deal, the higher the price shoots up.

Wrong signalling began with the triumphant jubilation that marked the Manmohan Singh government's and the Indian media's spin on the import of the Joint Statement. They claimed that India had been acknowledged as a nuclear weapons state and it was to be given the 'same advantages and benefits as the other nuclear powers and would accept the same responsibilities and practices' as them.

Bush defends Indo-US nuke deal

All of it was false. As Burns told the US Congress, 'We were determined from the start that we could not recognise India as a Nuclear Weapons State.' The Indian embassy in Washington, DC has, in fact, had to remove its backgrounder on India-US Civilian Nuclear Energy Cooperation, which made those claims .

Once the immediate gushing and jubilation were over and some semblance of debate began to emerge, stories were put out in the media, including by those who claimed to have been closely involved in the negotiations, that this was the 'best deal India could have got.'

Other stories were put out on the country's increasing energy needs. It was suggested that nuclear energy was critical to fill the presumed large gaps. A ring of false immediacy and alarm was given to both the estimates of energy needs and to the ability and criticality of the India-US nuclear deal to satisfy them.

New York Times criticises India-US nuclear deal

So shrill and desperate was the orchestration that anyone who questioned the underlying assumptions and logic was ridiculed as either still living in the much-maligned non-aligned era or was alleged to be protecting personal turf.

The message went out to the US: the Indian government could not backtrack from something that it had deceived itself and its public into believing was a triumph. India would now do anything to get the nuclear deal.

In October, Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran confirmed India's desperation to Nicholas Burns when he meekly accepted new conditions that annulled the principles of the Joint Statement -– reciprocity, sovereign decision-making on separation, voluntary offer for safeguards.

Second, before the Manmohan Singh government committed its entire diplomatic effort between July 18 and the coming Bush visit to getting the nuclear deal, it should have carried out a realistic assessment of what an agreement with the US would be worth in any case.

India's delicate minuet

India must understand that even if an agreement is signed, nuclear commerce will still remain hostage to annual presidential certifications and congressional reviews of continued Indian good behaviour.

This is true for any sort of nuclear cooperation agreement that the US Congress might finally ratify, except if the Manmohan Singh government can get the US Congress to make India an exception to all current American non-proliferation laws and expressly give up its prerogative to ask for annual presidential certifications and reviews. This is very highly unlikely, if not impossible, especially after the signals of panic and desperation that the Indian government has sent out.

With such a 'veto' in hand, the US Congress can stop nuclear cooperation for any reason it deems fit at any point of time -- if India tests a bomb again or an ICBM, if India even changes to a more alert nuclear weapons posture, if India goes to war with Pakistan, if India buys more nuclear technology from France or Russia than from US corporations, if a Gujarat-type event or a 1984 Delhi riot-type event should occur again.

That Obscure Object of Desire: Nuclear energy

We also know from experience -– cryogenic engines, Seaking helicopter spares, etc -- that if the US decides to stop its own cooperation with India, it will also block third parties from cooperating as well.

So, what would you give to secure such an agreement?

Third, once India did enter into negotiations, it should have exhibited the nerve to stand up to, even stare down, the US. Instead, Indian diplomats seem consumed by a desire that India should be the 'good boy' of international politics as defined and recognised by America.

The Manmohan Singh government and its supporters in the media have been gloating over the 'responsible State with advanced nuclear technology' certificate given out in the Joint Statement. It gives them special pleasure especially when compared with the concerns expressed about Pakistan.

The truth, however, is that in international politics, no one really cares for the 'nice guy'. America wouldn't care to acknowledge that India exists if it did not somehow impinge on US national interests.

'No American can treat India like a pet'

Especially since the advent of the nuclear age, even the most powerful nations have banked on chicken games -- recklessness and brinkmanship -- not responsible behaviour, to achieve their objectives.

During the Cold War, for instance, while India was undergoing a human population explosion, America and the Soviet Union indulged in a population explosion of bombs and missiles. It was reckless behaviour, considering they each built up arsenals that could destroy the whole planet several times over.

President Kennedy's risky decisions during the Cuban missile crisis, Reagan's Star Wars (now missile defence) plan, Chinese responses to American threats have all been successful demonstrations of reckless strategies against tough opponents.

Indeed, nuclear strategy during the Cold War was based on the logic of the 'rationality of irrationality.' Simply put, the US behaved irrationally to compel the Soviet Union to behave rationally. Even today, America continues to maintain a huge nuclear arsenal on hair-trigger alert, an example of irrationality.

Closer home, Pakistan has successfully used its reckless behaviour to achieve political objectives. Its use of terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy brought Kashmir into international focus and brought pressure on India to talk to it.

Pakistan's nuclear bazaar

Even its 'Bomb Process Outsourcing' business, as K Santhanam called the A Q Khan affair, forced America to dole out large sums of money for Pakistan's conventional arming, including F-16 fighters, to keep Pakistan from doing more BPO.

We may hate to admit it, but India dared not go to war with Pakistan in 2002 because of Pakistan's irrational 'touch-me-not' nuclear posture.

Indian strategic policy on the other hand is such that even the king of Nepal laughs at it. A small de-alerted, dispersed, non-threatening, even incredible, nuclear posture; a self-imposed moratorium on testing; no ICBM capability, and a small IRBM production; over-compliant with international rules with regard to proliferating nuclear technology.

What did Manmohan Singh expect when he went with this strategic posture to the US and asked for nuclear cooperation based on India's 'responsible behaviour?'

Naturally, he was told, 'Good man. Now you must do more to satisfy us. Submit a major portion of your nuclear facilities for perpetual, on-demand inspections and then wait until the US government and Congress are satisfied that you have submitted India enough to the American will.'

But then, why blame America for its imperialist designs. As George Perkovitch said on the Rediff Chat last week, the nuclear deal was India's idea, not America's.

Next: The biggest deal breaker

Srinivasa Raghotham is an associate and columnist for the Centre for Defence and International Security Studies, Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, Britain. He writes a column titled 'Strategic View'

S Raghotham