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They are having a party


Ronen Sen has, of course, apologised unconditionally for any hurt his remarks may have caused. One must say though that despite the fact that Sen’s "headless chickens" analogy was aimed at the media, it can very well describe some of the politics around the nuclear deal. And the umbrage his remarks provoked among the Indian Left parties is a measure of their own political immaturity.

What company is India’s Left keeping on the issue of nuclear diplomacy? Others who strongly oppose the deal include Pakistan, China and the US-European non-proliferation lobby — each of these parties seeks to obstruct the legitimacy and freedom of India’s nuclear weaponisation programme, which is clearly separated under the terms of the Indo-US cooperation on civilian nuclear programme. Pakistan and China, moreover, would be happy to see India weakened or harmed in any way possible, and the energy security that the nuclear deal potentially brings, particularly in the long term, is a matter of serious concern to all those who view India’s economic success with discomfort.

Nevertheless, critics of the nuclear deal insist that the prime minister has "compromised India’s sovereignty". (George Fernandes tells us that, in China, such a prime minister would be shot out of hand for his "betrayal" — it is interesting to see that Fernandes finds his inspiration in the Chinese.) This is just so much rubbish. The truth is, the deal gives de facto recognition to India as a nuclear power, and clearly recognises its right to pursue a nuclear weaponisation programme. There is, moreover, no explicit constraint on testing — though the US has expressed the "hope" that India will not test.

This is an issue that requires cold-headed evaluation, rather than loud hyper-patriotic pretensions. First, it is useful to note that, in 60 years of independence, India carried out nuclear tests twice — in 1974 and 1998. The 1998 tests, moreover, were more a political declaration of weaponisation than a scientific imperative. India’s military programme is in no way constrained by the infrequency or lack of testing. We would hardly have declared a unilateral moratorium on testing immediately after Pokhran II in 1998, had this not been the case. It must be clear, moreover, that if we decide that it is necessary to test again, 30 years hence, this deal will have little power to constrain us. Indeed, 30 years from now, nuclear weapons may be well on their way to obsolescence.

It needs to be acknowledged that India’s nuclear energy programmes have been slowly grinding to a halt for lack of fuel supplies under the sanctions imposed after the 1974 tests. There has been some specious argument that India should concentrate on developing its own significant uranium reserves, and, more importantly, the thorium-based Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR) programme. The reality is that the Test FBR attained criticality in 1985, but there have been technical difficulties and shutdowns since, and the Prototype FBR is scheduled for completion only in 2010. Thorium-based reactors are still at the research stage, and nuclear scientists admit that it may be decades before these technologies are brought to the stage of large-scale extraction and power generation. Securing access to assured fuel supplies is now an imperative if India’s nuclear power programme is to make any headway.

The failure of India’s Left lies in its inability to view the world in a dynamic context and to recognise the tremendous geopolitical flux that afflicts the contemporary order. The Left remains frozen in Cold War postures, its debility worsened infinitely by the terror of a ‘unipolar world’ dominated by the US. The reality, however, is that the world is quickly veering to multipolarity and India — if it pursues its interests with sagacity — will be one of these emerging poles. Those who think that power relations are irrevocably being defined by this single agreement not only misread the actual contents of the Indo-US deal, they ignore the reality of America’s rapidly transforming status in the global order, and India’s own rising economic power. Thirty years from now, if current or accelerated growth rates can be sustained (and nuclear power is one of the elements necessary for this outcome), India will be among the pre-eminent economic powers in the world. And if the communists had read their Marx, they would know that political power flows from economic power.

India, moreover, seeks a closer relationship with the US among other multi-dimensional relations across the globe. The claim that any regime in this country would accept a relationship of servility or inequality with a foreign power and that the Left alone stands as a last defence against such treachery, displays both arrogance and dishonesty, and reconciles poorly with the Left’s own long history of flawed political judgment and predilection for seeking inspiration — if not directives — from foreign powers.

India today operates in an environment of tremendous strategic flexibility, and it would be paranoia to reject the Indo-US nuclear agreement on a crude anti-US and xenophobic logic. Sixty years of independence, a continuous history of democracy and our growing economic muscle should give us a little more confidence and self-respect than is reflected in such immaturity of perspective. A large number of thinking Indians, including a majority of parliamentarians across party lines, would reject such a perspective, were it not for the partisan political interests dominating the debate.

It is this partisan politics, rather than any considered critique of specific clauses of the Indo-US agreement, that is fuelling the current political frenzy.

(Published in Indian Express, August 24, 2007)





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