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That Obscure Object of Desire: Nuclear energy

By Rajeev Srinivasan
Last updated on: October 24, 2005 18:07 IST
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American envoy Nicholas Burns was in India last week to attempt to move along the discussion on the Indo-US nuclear deal that was inked during Manmohan Singh's July visit to the US. There is some urgency, as Bush is allegedly going to make some major announcements about this deal during his proposed visit to India (that would be his first) in early 2006.

So far so good. But there are a number of troubling factors behind this attempted exercise in co-operation between India and the US. Despite being a booster of both India and the US, and someone who has been shouting himself hoarse that the two should form an alliance to face the true axis of evil, viz China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, I feel a sense of unease about this mating dance.

One of the biggest issues is lack of transparency, and conflicting statements. The Indian side has harangued critics, but hasn't come out with straight answers regarding the unseemly haste with which they are railroading the deal through the Indian Parliament, and how they appear to have been browbeaten by the Americans.

Manmohan Singh has issued anodyne statements assuring Indians that not all of India's civilian facilities will be turned over to the IAEA's intrusive inspections. However, that's not what the IAEA's ElBaradei thinks; and this is not what Nicholas Burns himself thinks. These two worthies, and George Perkovich (Vice President for Studies, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace), have gone on record saying that all of India's civilian facilities will be opened up under this deal. So who's dissimulating?

Let us note that the P-5 open up a grand total of a paltry 11 facilities to the IAEA for full inspection out of a total of 911 such facilities worldwide; yet India is being asked to open kimono. More apartheid, anyone?

Therefore let us step back and look at the core objectives behind such a deal. I shall confine myself to an India-centric perspective, and look at it from the point of view of India's national interests. I shall do this mostly so that it is possible to construct a clear logic behind Indian actions and to draw any conclusions. I could do the same from the US perspective related to proliferation worries, for instance as articulated by The Economist but that would be beyond the scope of this column.

Why exactly does India need to pursue a nuclear alliance with the US? There are two potential reasons, one is the parlous state of India's energy security; the second is legitimate defence purposes against nuclear-armed and dangerous neighbours in Asia.

Consider the second part first. Is the US inclined to help India with its nuclear ambitions, or even its minimum deterrent force just to protect its territorial integrity? The answer has to be a firm no. From the days of CENTO (Central Treaty Organisation) and SEATO (South East Asia Treaty Organisation), the US State Department has firmly viewed India as a nation that simply does not need or deserve to have nuclear weapons. Why this is so is an involved question, but this is a fact.

The US is in the process of slowly attenuating the nuclear programmes even of its friends like the UK, with some exceptions like Israel, of course. The US has a core belief that it is the only nation responsible enough to be trusted with weapons of mass destruction, and the corollary that it will take on the responsibility of providing a nuclear umbrella to those who might fear threats from other nuclear powers.

However, one could retort that it is an American vanity that they are a 'responsible' nuclear power, as they are the only nation to have ever used a nuclear weapon in anger. And that too, not once, but twice. I listened to a fascinating podcast from KQED San Francisco's Forum programme about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, around Hiroshima Day, August 6th.

The experts interviewed brought forth many excellent points, but as much as I tried, I could not understand the rationale for the second bomb, the one in Nagasaki. It really was dropped because the Americans could do it and get away with it. With a Japan prone after Hiroshima, the second bomb could surely have been dropped on an uninhabited area if the goal was only to demonstrate American resolve and not to terrorise civilians.

Therefore, the argument that America is a uniquely responsible power (shades of manifest destiny) that should be trusted with weapons of mass destruction is somewhat dubious.

Furthermore, despite all their professed concerns about proliferation, the Americans have winked at Israel's efforts at building a bomb: yes, there were extenuating circumstances. Far more egregiously, they have not even tried to stop large-scale Chinese proliferation to Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea. Worst of all, they have done nothing to even root out the effects of the AQ Khan nuclear Wal-mart, which makes one wonder if the Americans were actively colluding with the Pakistanis.

In addition, the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and all the other acronyms, an Indian observer might easily conclude, were principally meant to keep India a non-nuclear nation. Why do the P-5, especially a rogue like China and has-beens like the UK and France, get to keep nuclear weapons in perpetuity under the NPT? Is there some divine right involved? One is reminded of the Papal Bull that unilaterally divided the world into colonies for the Spanish and Portuguese.

Thus, it would be foolish to expect American help in India's nuclear weapons programmes. Further, even if America were to make India a major nuclear weapons ally, there is the issue of a dhritarashtra-alinganam: if India gets to be dependent on American nuclear weapons support, they can easily turn the tap off, as the British have discovered ("We are now a client state", Guardian. They have no sovereignty over the weapons they allegedly possess. The Americans control them.

India cannot afford to let its nuclear weapons be controlled by Americans, whose instinct is still to 'cap, rollback, and eliminate'. The State Department has never wavered from this obsolete, Cold War, monomaniacal mantra.

Part II: Indo-US deal may die in Congress



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Rajeev Srinivasan