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Journey from Pokhran-II to Hyde Act

Indo-US nuclear deal underlines the continuing adherence of the nuclear superpower to its non-proliferation agenda. The acceptance of this legislation by the UPA government also marks the sidelining of scientists in determining nuclear policy. This eclipse highlights the miscalculation that Pokhran-II would reinforce India's autonomy, when in fact the tests initiated the process of its weakening.


Journey from Pokhran-IIto Hyde Act

The passage of the Hyde Act in the US Congress on the Indo-US nuclear deal underlines the continuing adherence of the nuclear superpower to its non-proliferation agenda. The acceptance of this legislation by the UPA government also marks the sidelining of scientists in determining nuclear policy. This eclipse highlights the miscalculation that Pokhran-II would reinforce India’s autonomy, when in fact the tests initiated

the process of its weakening.


ith the passage of the Hyde Act by both houses of the US Congress, its subsequent signature by president George W Bush, and the simultaneous acceptance by prime minister Manmohan Singh of the terms that the Act lays down for Indo-US nuclear cooperation, the saga of continuing compromise on nuclear policy that began with Pokhran-II enters a new phase.

A significant section of commentators recognise that the terms laid down by the Act go well beyond the limits of what Manmohan Singh had declared would be acceptable to India in his August 17, 2006 statement to the Lok Sabha. Yet, the statement by the prime minister on December 18, 2006, made it clear that negotiations with the US would continue, without any concrete response to the detailed criticisms that have appeared in the media. The prime minister also made no reference to the detailed criticisms that have appeared from several leading figures (though not currently in office) of the atomic energy establishment.

Two features of these recent developments merit some detailed consideration. The first is that they completely expose the claims of the many uncritical votaries of the deal, who argued that it represented a remarkable window of opportunity that would enable India take its rightful place in the global nuclear order, substantially on its own terms. Undoubtedly some of those holding these views could no doubt have genuinely misread the situation. However, it is equally clear that an extraordinary propaganda campaign was mounted to soften up any opposition to a larger project of strategic closeness to the US, a propaganda campaign that now stands exposed.

The second feature is the virtual eclipse of the nuclear scientists in determining the fundamentals of nuclear policy. Behind this fact lies the extraordinary miscalculation of the scientists in uncritically pushing for nuclear weaponisation. It is clear that they genuinely believed that the 1998 weapons tests were a demonstration of self-reliance, directed at the hegemonic efforts of the nuclear powers, particularly the US. However, they seemed to have entirely missed the possibility that the tests would indeed have the opposite effect, opening the door to increasingly accommodating the US, and ultimately threatening the autonomy of all indigenous efforts in the nuclear field.


It is worth retracing the trajectory of this sorry tale of retreat that began, despite the current protestations of the Bharatiya Janata Party, immediately after the blasts of May 1998. In the first phase, a new principle was sought to be established for India’s nuclear policy. The essence was that India should seek some kind of accommodation with the unequal global nuclear order, while seeking to develop a new strategic relationship with the US, even going beyond the requirements of a nuclear bargain. In particular, India should agree to play by the rules of the global nuclear order if it were granted entry into its framework with at least de facto recognition of its nuclear power status. In addition, India, while pursuing its own path of nuclear weaponisation, would water down considerably its criticism of the leading nuclear weapons powers and its rhetoric in support of global nuclear disarmament.

The efforts of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, to convince Washington of a new willingness in New Delhi for a strategic alliance, met with considerably greater success in the era of the first Bush administration. Over a period of more than three years the NDA dispensation provided highly visible support to the Bush administration on a number of critical occasions. The Bush administration duly acknowledged this in its progressive upgrading of the Indo-US relationship from a “Strategic Partnership” to the “Next Steps in Strategic Partnership”, while lifting part of the high-technology restrictions imposed in the immediate aftermath of the weapons tests.

The era of the second Bush administration began shortly after the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government took office. While the original principle evolved by the NDA regime continued to define the general direction, three new and mutually related aspects of the making of India’s nuclear policy came to the fore in this period. The first aspect, that has become clear in retrospect, has been the new strategy of the UPA government to widen the scope of Indo-US negotiations to include, in parallel with nuclear deal-making, deals on a broad range of economic and science and technology issues. These initiatives, ranging from the Indo-US Joint CEO Forum to the Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture, clearly provided greater flexibility in manoeuvring on the nuclear front. At the same time, on the domestic front, it attempted to muster support for the deal, by connecting it to the “economic reform” agenda and further opening up of the economy. This was a move that was successful in garnering some degree of support for the deal, as evidenced by the strong backing that the government has

Economic and Political Weekly December 23, 2006

received from the pro-reform lobby in the country.

The second, more dramatic, aspect was the rapid change in the main thrust of the nuclear negotiations. These, it appeared, were no longer mainly about guaranteeing India’s place in the global nuclear order, though that was not entirely ignored. India, or so the script ran, urgently needed to expand its nuclear energy sector, both through access to nuclear fuel to step up current energy production, as well as through international collaboration and turn-key projects in this sector. A remarkable chorus began in support of this new thrust, including voices that included the leaders of the Indian private sector, key players in the bureaucracy and the Planning Commission, and media persons. It is notable that for the first time there were serious interventions in nuclear policy from outside the ranks of the government scientific establishments. More strikingly, some of these interventions were explicitly critical of the atomic energy establishment and its performance in the energy sector, even though many of the same voices had lauded the nuclear scientists earlier for their contribution to making a “nuclear weapons state”.

The third aspect was the campaign, undertaken by an articulate lobby with close links to government, to convince the Indian public that the global strategic view of the US, including its stance on nonproliferation, had undergone a sea change. In the extreme version argued by some, the US was increasingly turning to countries like India, and away from the “tired” nations of Europe, in search of a new world equilibrium. It was argued that the Bush administration was particularly sensitive to Indian sensibilities, and that it had no desire to restrain India in any way with the armoury of nuclear non-proliferation. All that India had to do, it was suggested, was to shed its cold war inhibitions and simply walk into the strategic embrace of the US, whose arms Bush was obligingly holding open.

Rude Reminder

The passage of the Hyde Act and its signature by president Bush, the tenor of the debate preceding it and the final contents of the legislation, have provided a rude reminder of the realities and constraints that govern Indo-US relations, exposing the assiduously built-up myths of India’s Bushies. Firstly, the content of the Hyde Act indicates that the office of the US president is not the only player in the fashioning of US foreign policy, a fact often conveniently forgotten. This has been particularly true in the case of nuclear policy, with a long record of derailments in Congress of White House-led initiatives. Even before the legislation was enacted, the constant “shifting of the goalposts” by the US administration was partly justified on the grounds of the acceptability of the deal to Congress.

Secondly, the desire of Bush and his administration to overturn the nonproliferation regime was vastly overrated. In particularly, even before the March 2006 agreement between India and the US, Bush himself had made it clear that there was no question of any technological cooperation or even access across the full nuclear fuel cycle. It could be argued that India had no need of enrichment or re-processing technology. But apart from coming in the way of maintaining significant sections of the future nuclear programme in the civilian sector, with a host of attendant complications, it clearly indicated the hold of the non-proliferation agenda in the policy perceptions of the Bush administration. There are a host of other explicit nonproliferation measures in the final form of the legislation. These include one-sided requirements such as pushing India towards a fissile material cut-off despite the lack of any multilateral treaty governing all nuclear powers in this regard.

Thirdly, the constraints of the Hyde Act have been imposed despite the considerable distance that the Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh governments had already travelled to convince the US of their willingness to develop a strategic entente. The explanatory note appended by the US Senate and House of Representatives conferees on the final version of the Act demonstrates the extent to which the US Congress regards India as an ally already in that country’s foreign policy orbit, to whom it is not necessary to concede anything more than the bare minimum. It is noteworthy that, at least for now, it appears that the US Congress has judged correctly how little it would take to ensure that the UPA government stays with the deal, even as it enacted legislation that explicitly violated the limits that the Indian government had claimed to be inviolable before its own parliament.

It is clear that the UPA government would have conceded even more in negotiations had it not been for the pressure of domestic public opinion, strongly influenced by the critical attitude of the nuclear science establishment. Currently the government appears to be preparing to weather criticism and proceed further with the deal. But it will be risking a political backlash, as the opinion against the deal on the current terms is more than likely to be consolidated. The UPA government or its successors are likely to attempt opening up the nuclear power sector to foreign direct investment, if the deal does eventually go through. In such a case there is likely to be considerable parliamentary and public opposition when it tries to implement the necessary changes in India’s Atomic Energy Act.

Object Lesson

But the current state of nuclear policy also holds an object lesson for a significant section of India’s S&T community, the atomic energy and defence sectors, which was party to the promotion of the project of nuclear weaponisation. It was foreseeable that any negotiation with the US opened the danger of eventual backsliding on the question of resisting technological domination, especially when the negotiations were directed primarily towards protecting the weapons capability at all costs. When the slogan of self-reliance had been explicitly set aside in the era of “reform”, it was strange to expect that it could be defended just in one sector. Inevitably, the slogan of self-reliance was increasingly interpreted in a purely strategic sense. This trend has intensified with the current regime seeking to throw open the nuclear energy sector with scant regard for protecting the advances made, with considerable effort, in the era of technological isolation.

At the same time, the scientific community in general, and the atomic energyrelated sector in particular, have done little to promote any critical thinking or even public discussion regarding the impact of “economic reforms” on science and technology in India and its implications for science policy. Nor have they displayed any clarity of vision on the implications of the new policy for the pursuit of a scientific agenda oriented towards goals that are relevant to our human development needs and concerns. They have remained silent, as some sections of the S&T leadership have uncritically promoted the pursuit of aspects of the liberalisation agenda such as the implementation of a new intellectual property rights regime, amending the Patents Act of 1972 and so on.

Predictably, it is now the turn of the atomic energy establishment itself to come

Economic and Political Weekly December 23, 2006 under the hammer. Leading editorial writers in the economic press have called for scientists to attend to the task of nuclear weapons production, leaving nuclear power to private industry in partnership with global players. Even the prime minister appears to have joined this chorus of criticism in his December 18 statement, referring to the non-realisation of the expectations of the 1970s in the nuclear energy sector and the low share of nuclear power in the overall energy scenario.

Even today a call from leading nuclear scientists to defend national interests in the nuclear energy sector can draw powerful public support. But this support can hardly be expected to be sustained at this same level if this call is not part of a general move to take a critical view of the impact of the economic reform agenda on research and development in all sectors and the need to take necessary corrective measures. Otherwise such pleas for support to Parliament and the public run the risk of appearing as the rearguard action of a special-interest lobby that is resistant to any critical oversight of its functioning.

Hopefully the nuclear scientists will also not be tempted to implicitly align with the arguments of the nuclear hawks, including the BJP, who oppose the deal on the grounds that it compromises national security interests. The argument is clearly a pathetically weak one, that the government will have no problems in debunking.

It is unclear whether the UPA government will be able to sustain its current strategy of trying to brush aside all criticism and bluster its way forward to proceed with the next steps in the nuclear negotiations. It is more than likely that the pursuit of such a strategy will face stiff resistance both internally and in public. A prudent political outlook would dictate that the government attempt to meet its critics at least halfway. The tenor and content of the August 17, 2006 statement had raised the possibility that such prudence would dictate the government’s course of action. However, currently, an imprudent, ideological commitment to opening up the nuclear field as part of a larger project of strategic entente with the US seems to be dominating its thinking again. If the opposition to the pursuit of the deal evolves into a political crisis for the existence of the government itself, then it would have only its own blinkered vision to blame.



Economic and Political Weekly December 23, 2006

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