Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Last year, when Dr Manmohan Singh threatened to resign if the Indo-US Nuclear Deal did not go through and the communists withdrew support to the government on this issue, there was one question that was asked by a lot of people: what is the hurry to get the Deal through? That question has been more than satisfactorily answered. No one is in any doubt that Barack Obama would not have given such a Deal to India. He did support the Deal before he became President and says even now that he will honour it. But it is evident already that there is a fundamental mismatch between his views on proliferation of nuclear weapons and what the Deal promises to India.

Well before he became President, Obama had spoken of his vision of a nuclear-weapon free world. That is something he has reiterated often since as a long term global goal which he admits will not be achieved in his life time.

But, there is no doubt whatsoever that he is serious about setting in motion measures that will lead to the achievement of that vision. Towards that end he has already taken some concrete steps. A few of these are:
  • In the first week of July, he reached an outline agreement with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev. As per that "joint understanding" signed in Moscow, the strength of deployed nuclear warheads of both countries will be reduced to below 1,700 within seven years of signing a new treaty.
  • He has also announced that he would seek ratification of the CTBT which the US has signed but not yet ratified.
  • The US, along with other nuclear weapon states among the G8 members, has also decreed a moratorium on production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear devices and is working towards a treaty that bans it. G8 members have also called upon all states to declare and uphold a moratorium on production of such material.
This defining call made by the G8 to all states, undoubtedly under the leadership and urging of Obama, to declare a moratorium on production of fissile material, has gone largely unnoticed in India. This is a major step towards putting a lid on proliferation of nuclear weapons. From this flows logically the much talked about interim ban imposed by the G8 on enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) items and technology sales to the countries that have not signed the NPT. There are only three countries who have not done that yet: India, Pakistan and Israel.

The G8 Statement on Nonproliferation marks a shift in the position of the nuclear powers as far as India's ambitions and plans as a de facto nuclear power are concerned. The Indo-US Nuclear Deal concluded between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George Bush allows India to separate its military and civilian nuclear facilities with only the latter being placed under IAEA safeguards. India, thus, has became the only non-nuclear weapons power that is free to pursue its nuclear weapons program without attracting sanctions or facing a ban on import of dual use technology items, something that it had faced ever since it exploded its first nuclear device, stymieing its efforts to generate power through the use of nuclear energy.

The imposing of the ENR items and technology ban by the G8 effectively re-imposes the ban on some critical dual use items and dilutes the Deal to some extent. The government, possibly caught on the back foot by this development, should have seen this and more coming ever since Obama got into the White House. Russia and France have reportedly signed agreements with India that permit India to reprocess imported nuclear fuel on its soil. But that may mean little if these members of the G8 individually refuse to overlook the very ENR ban that they have collectively imposed a few days back. Will they do it?

The real picture is likely to emerge only after India starts talks with the US on a reprocessing deal to operationalise the Deal. Will it be possible for the US to say one thing at the G8 and do exactly the opposite with India thereafter? Or will it cite the 123 Agreement to make an exception in the case of India? After extracting it pound of flesh, of course! The decision that the US takes will set the tone for all other members of the NSG. A negative for India decision by the US will inadvertently see China achieve without effort what it failed to do surreptitiously at the NSG meeting in Vienna last year.

The G8 statement needs to be seen in the light of the nuclear test carried out by North Korea on May 25, 2009, the nuclear program being pursued by Iran and the real danger of nuclear weapons and/or technologies falling into the hands of terrorists. These immediate concerns coupled with the pacifist vision of Barack Obama have resulted in the statement which may impact India adversely and make it appear as if India has blundered in entering into the Deal with the US. But if you look more closely, it will become clear that is not so.

Would India have been better off today had it not signed the Deal? The answer is unambiguously in the negative. Without the Deal, its nuclear weapons program would have remained as illegitimate as that of, say, North Korea or Pakistan and it would not have been able to get the nuclear power plants that it is planning to now, from any country, to generate 20,000 MW of power by 2020. Even if the ENR ban stays, for whatever reason, for some time, the situation will still be better than it was before the Deal was signed. At least with the Deal and the NSG approval in place, India has a solid and exclusive platform to work on; it had nothing earlier. And if India continues to outgrow the rest of the world economically, soon it will even have much better bargaining power than it has ever had till now.

Barack Obama's views on nuclear proliferation may, at worst, see some temporary erosion in a few provisions of the Indo-US Nuclear Deal that Dr Manmohan Singh was astute enough to insist on pushing through when Bush was US President. It is now on the alertness of India's leaders and their negotiating skills to ensure that such erosion is minimal. It is also important that Obama's position on the subject is viewed holistically and not narrowly as anti-India.

India also needs to remember that Obama will have at best eight years as President. The Deal will outlast him. And who knows how the next US President will look at things and what the global security scenario will be then, particularly in the light of China's furious efforts to build a strategic military capability to rival that of the US? Let us give Manmohan due credit. He did right in pushing the Deal, as time will tell.