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Nuclear Debate, National Interest and Political Drama

The tone of the political debate on the Indo-US nuclear deal has been bewildering. What is worrying, as illustrated by this exchange, is that political parties are undermining the culture of dialogue and deliberation that lies at the heart of our democratic polity. Rival speakers have to listen to one another and be prepared to modify their respective positions. It is only through such dialogue and deliberation that political establishments can prove that they are capable of democratically responsible behaviour.

Off the Shelf

Nuclear Debate, National Interest and Political Drama

The tone of the political debate on the Indo-US nuclear deal has been bewildering. What is worrying, as illustrated by this exchange, is that political parties are undermining the culture of dialogue and deliberation that lies at the heart of our democratic polity. Rival speakers have to listen to one another and be prepared to modify their respective positions. It is only through such dialogue and deliberation that political establishments can prove that they are capable of democratically responsible behaviour.


Political language is designed to… give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

– George Orwell

rdinary citizens without intellectual pretensions and unacquainted with the intricacies of nuclear politics are utterly bewildered today with the tenor of the nuclear debate. The govern ments of two countries, India and the US, have finalised an agreement between themselves about the supply of techno logy and related material and facilities for the development of civil nuclear energy. No two countries, unless one is subservient to the other, will lock themselves with each other unless there is some convergence of interests. No two countries are ever equal in terms of military capability, economic strength or financial resources; and this is as true in the multi-polar world of today. Under these circumstances, each country has to strive to carve out a niche for itself.

Our policy of economic openness is the recognition of that reality. For decades we had chosen to stagnate in the backwaters, be it in terms of infusion of investment, advanced technology, or trade and financial inflows. Thus, it was only quite recently that we woke up to the realities of a rapidly globalising world and have been fine-tuning our economic, technology and financial policies. As compared with many other countries, particularly China, we have been late in realisation, but even then, within a very short time, we have demonstrated our resilience in a multi-polar world. But even in this world of growing multi-polarity, we cannot underplay the fact that it is the transnational corporations largely based in the US and Europe, with enormous resources at their command, whether in terms of investment resources, technological superiority and research capabilities, that are not only the prime engines of global growth, but also hold the key to it. And that whatever be the dynamics of competition between these corporations and research institutes in the US, Europe and Japan, on the critical parameters of technological access there is a working consensus between them and the US acts as the collective’s gatekeeper. As a nation, despite the ideological shadow-boxing, the parties across our political spectrum have shown a maturity to under stand this. Today, looking at China’s spectacular growth, we regret not having embarked on our new journey earlier, thereby missing the opportunity of placing ourselves, economically, on the same level as that country. Ideological cussedness in the early 1990s would have been disastrous, but luckily what saved us from utter disaster was a fortuitous conjuncture of circumstances, national and international.

Today, in our journey towards realising our full potential and strengthening ourselves on the economic and security fronts, we must be proactive in removing our vulnerabilities in a few other areas as well. We need access to the full range of technology that is critical for our growth over the long term. The most frequently cited areas are biotechnology, information technology, space technology and of course, nuclear power. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which we opposed, served to keep us from having access to nuclear technology and cooperation, as well as fuel supplies, especially in the 1980s and 1990s. This exclusion (which we had termed “nuclear apartheid”) barred us from the benefits of a wide range of technologies that could have otherwise flown to us.


Our nuclear isolation would be substantively removed if India and the US are able to “operationalise” the agreement. This will be in many ways a critical breakthrough. The US and other nations will allow their companies to export to India investment, technology and fuel for the establishment of nuclear reactors for civilian purposes. This will serve to release the Europeans, especially the French, and possibly the Japanese, as well as Russia, from the constraints of the current arrangement which prevent them from entering into trade and investment initiatives involving nuclear energy today with India. As the agreement is for deve lopment of civilian facilities, the agreement envisages safeguards and supervision by the International Atomic Energy Authority to ensure that material from the civilian facilities is not used to augment India’s nuclear arsenal. Expectedly, this agreement has been the topic of extensive discussion and analysis among intellectuals, nuclear scientists and technologists, and defence and political analysts. (This weekly has published, over the past several months, several articles and commentaries from different perspectives.) I will make a brief reference to the core issues.

First, how critical is nuclear power from the energy security angle? Today India consumes about 550 units of power per capita per year. The level of consumption in China is 1,500 units, in Brazil 2,300 units; it is 6,300 in Germany and 14,000 in the US. Even if we see consumption increase from present levels to say 3,000 units over the next 20 years, which will be consistent with maintaining 8 to 9 per

Economic and Political Weekly September 22, 2007 cent growth levels, we are talking of increasing our generating capacity to six times our existing level, i e, an increment of some 7,50,000 MW. Nuclear power today accounts for only 3 per cent of India’s electricity generation capacity, i e, 3,310 MW. It does not even contribute as much as wind power (3,595 MW). Is this something that has come about because of our free choice? Not at all. It has been the bitter consequence of a continuing embargo on both technology and fuel supply. India had set a target of producing 10,000 MW of nuclear power several years ago, to be subsequently increased to 20,000 MW. Clearly, this target is unachievable under the existing regime of international denial. India’s natural uranium resources are inadequate to fuel even our existing small capacity, leave alone a much larger prospective capacity. Taking a long-term view and looking at our energy requirements in the decades ahead, we must keep diversifying our options and our capability for tapping all available sources of energy. If we take a 20 to 25-year perspective, it is clear that nuclear energy will have to form a very substantial chunk of incremental capacity towards the end of this time horizon and in order to achieve that we have to plan to gradually ramp up our commitments today. We must recognise that, given our deficiencies and limitations, the autarkic route to development of civil nuclear facilities can in no way be accepted in national interest as the preferred one.

Second, what kinds of spin-off can we expect on the technology front? As we know, for the manufacture of different complex and large-scale components of reactors, interactions in the past between scientists, technologists and manufacturers have helped our country achieve the high levels of quality control, quality surveillance and quality assurance. These developments happened at a time when India cooperated with the UK (for Apsara), with Canada (for Rajasthan) and with the US (for Tarapur) and France (for Kalpakkam). The Pokhran test in 1974 virtually terminated the cooperation, and the regime was tightened further after the 1998 tests. Given our scientific, technological and manufacturing capabilities, removal of nuclear isolation will have an enormously beneficial fallout.

Third, there have been discussions also on the implications of the development of nuclear power for controlling global warming, safety and capital and generation cost. As a carbon-clean fuel source, nuclear power will help combat global warming. Some have criticised this argument on the ground that, in order to have an effective impact, a new nuclear plant has to come up every week: This borders on irrelevance. If global warming is a disaster that is waiting to happen, every country must contribute towards adoption of all types of clean technologies. True, public confidence in the safety of nuclear power was rudely shaken following the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters. Safety standards have been improving continually. The nuclear industry has been claiming that it has the best safety record among all the various methods of electri city generation. This is the only industry in which operators from all over the world have come together and set up an institution called the World Association of Nuclear Operators for conducting peer reviews of nuclear power plants and evolving industry-wise procedures and practices for enhancing safety.

Fourth, are we sacrificing our vital national security considerations? We have to look at the issue from three interrelated aspects. The agreement makes it imperative to separate civilian and defence facilities, but India retains the right to decide which facilities and programmes it would like to identify as civilian under this agreement and place them under international supervision. Though it takes time to separate such facilities, nuclear weapons countries have, over a period of time, achieved such a separation. Moreover, under the agreement India retains the right to reprocess foreign fuel, a privilege that the US currently grants only to Japan and European countries. Further, India can use both the current stockpile of weapons grade plutonium and future production from the Cirus and Dhruva reactors and other future plutonium production reactors to make nuclear weapons.

The current stockpile is estimated at 400-500 kg, sufficient for around 100 simple fission weapons. Cirus and Dhruva could continue to produce 25 to 35 kg of plutonium a year. This means that by 2010 the potential arsenal size could be about

130. As the prime minister has repeatedly clarified, the agreement has in no way compromised the Indian nuclear deterrent and, at the same time, promises to provide India access to civilian nuclear technology from the nuclear advanced countries.

Fifth, as in all international agreements, we have to be careful when the stage for implementation comes. We have to guard against asymmetric implementation; both sides have to calibrate their moves. Certainly, India’s increased reliance on nuclear energy will mean more business for American companies; nuclear power projects worth $ 150 billion are envisaged over the next three decades. It appears that the US nuclear industry may not be able to provide the most cost effective technological solutions for our needs. Our freedom to do business with all countries in our interest should not be curtailed.

If the agreement is operationalised and India plays her cards well, she can develop into a power centre in this multi-polar world of today. A realisation has dawned among advanced countries that the political character of a nuclear armed state can be even more important than its signature on the Non-Proliferation Treaty. There is no denying the fact that, with growing Islamic fundamentalism in Asia and a rising China, the collateral benefits that the US see in this agreement with India far outweigh the classical risks arising from a breach in the existing non-proliferation regime.


The main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the left ally (the Communist Party of India (Marxist)) of the

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Economic and Political Weekly September 22, 2007

government are against the agreement, taking adversarial and conflicting positions. The issues concerning the substantive parts of the agreement, namely, energy security, weapons programme, and nuclear power are being sidetracked. Sadly, the main opposition party has assumed a confrontational posture, which is somewhat inexplicable, for, when it was in power, it had itself taken the initiative for the proposed agreement, and rightly so. Are we to believe that in their perception something drastic has changed in between? The left political establishment, on the other hand, is raising an accusing finger not so much at the provisions of the nuclear agreement per se but at the trap of a strategic partnership that the US has allegedly laid for us. India would become a subservient ally to US imperialistic design. Thus it would be impossible for India to chart her own future course. We will be forced to abandon, so the left feels, our independent non-alignment policy that we have been following for decades. The goal posts in the debate now stand completely shifted.

Over the past two years, India and the US have been engaged in serious discussions to thrash out an agreement that would address the concerns and interests of both the countries. We cannot, in any alliance, be it with the US or with any other nation, close our options. The prime minister has made it clear in Parliament from time to time that India’s sovereignty would not in any event be sacrificed and India would not forgo her options to act in any changed context, in any manner she considers appropriate in her national interest. But the left establishment has not taken this assertion at its face value. In fact it has chosen to ignore the fact that no ruling party establishment, at any stage in our country’s history, since Independence, can be accused of having surrendered the country’s sovereign right to take decisions in her national interest. The left continues to assert that any alliance with the US must be avoided at any cost, for, they say they fear that, when the crunch comes, no government, at any time in future would be able to protect India’s national interest. This is a sweeping and false judgment not only on the credibility of the present government, but on all governments, past and even future.

Look at the meteoric rise of China. Strategically and diplomatically, the US is not enamoured of China and its policies, but that has not prevented either country from entering into alliances or allowing their industries to explore opportunities in each other’s country or engaging in massive trade that has helped China accumulate huge reserves, the bulk of which stand invested today in US government securities. When China’s interests are at stake, she does not hesitate to seek US support; we know how she strove hard for US support to get membership of the World Trade Organisation. On the nuclear front as well, she has a similar agreement with the US. However, the agreement that China executed with the US several years ago contains several stipulations of “good behaviour” on human rights and Tibet policy fronts. The agreement with India, on the other hand, contains no such extra neous stipulations. Both the nuclear deals accept the reality that today no substantial progress can be achieved by any country in opposition to the US or at its expense. Technology and investment have been pouring into China from all over – the US, the EU, Japan and Taiwan. These are the countries against whom the Chinese have been for decades nursing antagonistic feelings, but with whom she has entered into different kinds of cooperation. She did not shy away from such cooperation; nor did China compromise her sovereignty. She used these collaborations and alliances to her best advantage, in what she considered to be her national interest.

In a recent TV discussion on the nuclear deal, when a participant talked of the developments in China, a leading member of the left retorted angrily, saying, “Why do you keep on quoting China? India is not China. We are here to protect India’s interest.” What credi bility does the left have to pose as custodians of our national interest? In politics passions fade, men and women disengage themselves from their erstwhile sacrosanct commitments, and interest groups form new alignments as the world turns. But certain scars that are deep always remain. Posterity will not forget them; the past can never be wished away. Recall the left’s political behaviour at the time of independence. For years, the communists continued with their refrain that the freedom we attained was a sham. Their stance during the border conflicts in 1962 with China was an enigma. If the left succeeds in their declared objective to have the recent initiatives put in cold storage, it could be years before the US or any other nuclear nation broached the idea of selling nuclear fuel and technology to India. We will continue to slip behind China in gaining our due share of status and respectability among the comity of nations.

The left is persistently consistent in their many inconsistencies. It is not unlikely that the left will one day change its position today. If, however, the US is untouchable to them, the state governments they run should have no direct or indirect links with the US or any country that is bound by strategic alliances with the US.

Dialogue and Democracy

What is deeply worrying is that the parties are undermining the culture of dialogue and deliberation that lies at the heart of our democratic polity. Statements and counter-statements do not make for dialogue. Debate cannot be a substitute for dialogue, particularly when issues of national importance are involved. Debaters have to listen to each other, but listening does not produce a legitimate process. The objective for debaters is not to reach an agreement among themselves, but to win the debate, to have the self satisfaction that their position, rather than any of the alternatives, is the best one. A debate is a contest between rival athletes; this means exercise of rhetorical skills, mustering of favourable evidence and suppression of unfavourable evidence and discrediting of the opposing debaters. All these may be potent strategies among candidates in election time, but certainly in a country that we brag is the largest democracy in the world, political participants may legitimately be expected not to fall victims to short-term election strategies, especially when larger national interests with long-term consequences are at stake. Deliberative democracy on issues of national importance requires a culture of argument, a negotiating process to understand and accommodate the concerns of the other side rather than just look for the hardest bargain. Rival speakers have to listen to one another and be prepared to modify their respective positions. It is only through such dialogue and deliberation that political establishments can prove that they are capable of coming up to the high standards of democratically responsible behaviour. Sadly, we seem lacking in that.



Economic and Political Weekly September 22, 2007

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