Journalist | Writer | Analyst
Unless Washington blinks on the Fast Breeder reactor and voluntary safeguards, the agreement will not fly in India.
7 February 2006
Question mark over Indo-U.S. nuclear deal
FOR THE past few weeks, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) has been the subject of a smear campaign orchestrated by those who feel the Indo-U.S. agreement on civil nuclear cooperation will unravel unless the country’s nuclear scientists quickly fall in line.
As first reported by this writer in The Hindu (“Safeguards for breeder reactors a key obstacle,” January 21, 2006), the last meeting of the Indo-U.S. working group on the civilian-military separation question saw the two sides getting stuck on a number of vital issues. Top among these was India’s fast-breeder programme, which the Indian delegation chose not to offer for international safeguards but which the U.S. insisted had to be listed on the civilian side and subjected to scrutiny by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Following that meeting, a number of articles and reports appeared in several Indian newspapers attacking the DAE and its scientists for refusing to place the breeder programme under safeguards and for generally being obstructionist. Writers who seven years ago had sung the praises of the DAE’s scientists for making nuclear bombs now started describing them as inept “reactionaries” whose work was “outdated.” One story, quoting unnamed officials in high places, asserted that the Prime Minister would eventually ensure that these recalcitrant scientists all fell in line. It is fair to assume that these unnamed “officials” were not from the Indian Government because sending out such a message at a time when negotiations are delicately poised was tantamount to telling the U.S. they could continue to be inflexible. Why would anyone on the Indian side want to do that?
Whether or not there was a pattern in this media reportage, the scientists certainly saw one. Not surprisingly, they felt bitter and aggrieved. The DAE might have drawn up a number of separation options but the choice of which one to select and present to the U.S. last December had been taken at the very highest level. Indeed, once Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran presented those ideas to his counterpart in Washington, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, the plan formally became an “Indian” plan and was no longer the product of a single department or ministry. Until that point, everything was fine. Indeed, “knowledgeable” articles appeared here and there about how good the Indian separation plan was and how all the fears that the Government would not protect the country’s interest were misplaced. It was only after the U.S. side — following the January meeting in Delhi — began denouncing the Indian plan as “inadequate” and “indefensible from the non-proliferation perspective” that the high-decibel campaign against the scientists began.
After a period of dignified silence, the Department of Atomic Energy has now sought to clear the air. In an interview to Pallava Bagla in the Indian Express on February 6, DAE chairman Anil Kakodkar has said the American insistence on specifying which Indian facilities must be placed on the civilian list was tantamount to changing “the goalpost.” Dr. Kakodkar said the July 18, 2005 agreement made it clear the “determination [of what goes on the civilian list] has to be made by the Indians… (for) India’s strategic interests will have to be decided by India and not by others.”
Echoing an argument he first made in an interview to T.S. Subramaniam in The Hindu (August 12), Dr. Kakodkar said it would not be in India’s strategic interest to place the Fast Breeder programme in the civilian list. “Both, from the point of view of maintaining long term energy security and for maintaining the minimum credible deterrent (as defined by the nuclear doctrine), the Fast Breeder programme just cannot be put on the civilian list. This would amount to getting shackled and India certainly cannot compromise one for the other,” he said.
The interview has spelt out in the clearest possible language the reasons why the U.S. pressure on India’s Fast Breeder programme is not acceptable. If the Bush administration was foolishly hoping the Prime Minister could be forced to crack his whip and get his negotiators to fall in line, this public enunciation of Indian strategic interests by someone in the know will surely have put paid to those plans.
Washington must know that a separation plan in which the Fast Breeder programme is safeguarded will simply not fly in this country. After Dr. Kakodkar’s statements, the political consequences would be far too serious. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told Parliament on July 29, 2005 that India would not accept any discrimination in nuclear matters but discrimination is precisely what the U.S. has in mind when it insists that a voluntary offer safeguards agreement of the type it has is simply not on the agenda. On this demand too, the Bush administration will have to back off.
If Washington stops moving the goal post and agrees to effectualise its offer of civilian nuclear cooperation on the basis of the text of the July 18 agreement, there is a reasonable chance of the nuclear deal going through.
But if it is expecting the Manmohan Singh Government to blink, Dr. Kakodkar’s latest interview will almost certainly ensure that does not happen. Some people are suggesting he spoke out of turn and did not get prior political clearance from the Prime Minister’s Office for what he said. In fact, as the top official in charge of India’s atomic establishment, the DAE chairman can never speak out of turn. Those inclined to criticise him should learn to make a virtue out of necessity. Indeed, the supporters of Indo-U.S. nuclear cooperation should realise that by drawing a thick red line out in the open, Dr. Kakodkar has done the only thing which can still salvage the deal: telling the Americans that if they don’t blink, the agreement will die a natural death.