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Indo-US Nuclear Deal: In Perspective

It used to be said of former US President Ronald Reagan that he was a bad policy-maker, but a good communicator. His communication skills were so good that he could make a bad policy look good and a policy failure seem a success. He and his advisers followed certain dos and don’ts: Use very simple language which even the man in the street can understand; avoid over-blown adjectives and retoric; avoid demonisation of your domestic critics; and select a simple catchy expression which will stick to the minds of the people. Reagan had the knack of making his individual domestic interlocutors go away after a meeting with him thinking that he or she was the most trusted confidante of the President.

2. Our Prime Minister Dr.Manmohan Singh is quite the contrast of Reagan—- a good policy-maker, but a bad communicator. His communication skills and those of his advisers are so inadequate and bad that instead of disarming the critics of the Indo-US nuclear deal one by one they have added to their ranks during the last three years. Manmohan Singh’s natural inclination to be secretive—-arising from his years as a bureaucrat before he entered politics—- has made him seem to his critics as manipulative whereas he is not. Is there a single person in New Delhi whom one can characterise as the most trusted confidante of the Prime Minister? No. Confiding in people, humouring them, making them feel good and sharing secrets with them to tickle their ego do not come naturally to him.

3. Manmohan Singh came to office as Prime Minister a few months before George Bush was re-elected as the President in November,2004.Policy-making during the first term of a US President tends to be affected by his anxiety to get re-elected. They avoid too many innovations. The real innovations in policy-making often come in the second term when this anxiety no longer influences policy-making.

4. One has been seeing this happening in the case of Bush too. Bush 2005-2008 is different from Bush 2001-2004. During his first term, he was surrounded by Cabinet members , who were the relics of the past and looked at India through the eyes of their friends in Pakistan. Gen.Colin Powell, the Secretary of State in the first term, was a good example.

5. During his second term, he has been surrounded by Cabinet members whose vision of India is not unduly influenced by their vision of Pakistan. They look at Pakistan as an intractable problem inherited from the past and India as an opportunity of the future. Ms.Condolleezza Rice, the present Secretary of State, is a good example.

6. The second term of Bush has been marked by two major concerns arising from the growing Chinese military and economic muscle and the growing jihadi power in the tribal areas of Pakistan. In a recent interview, Bush has been quoted as saying that while Iraq and Afghanistan were his major preoccupations, Pakistan would be the major preoccupation of his successor. In fact, Pakistan has already started becoming a major preoccupation of even Bush.

7. It was in this context that Bush, Rice and others of similar thinking started looking at India as a possible geopolitical asset in dealing with not only China, but also Pakistan.Two characteristics of India appealed to them. First, its enduring success as a democracy, which could provide a positive model to other countries in the region. Second, the inability of Al Qaeda and its associates to make an impact on the Indian Muslim community barring some small pockets. In his remarks and speeches during the Prime Minister’s visit to Washington DC in July,2005, it was these two aspects which Bush highlighted.

8. It was against this background that Bush’s offer of the nuclear deal came during his discussions with Manmohan Singh. The late R.N.Kao, the founding father of the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), India’s external intelligence agency, used to say that policy leaders and analysts should be able to detect when a door, which had remained firmly shut, shows signs of slightly opening.They should immediately put their leg in to prevent the door from closing again and try to make it open more and more.

9.Manmohan Singh, being an alert analyst and a good policy maker, detected the slight opening of the Indo-US door and put his leg in by accepting the offer of a nuclear deal. Since then, he has been frantically trying to keep the leg in and make the door open more and more, but his critics and detractors have been desperately trying to force him to take his leg out.

10. The nuclear deal has been significant from the geopolitical angle as well as from the angle of India’s energy supply security. Instead of explaining both these aspects in a simple language which would carry conviction to people, he and his advisers have been over-playing the energy supply security aspect by flooding the people with statistics which bore them. They are trying to project the deal as a manna from heaven in our quest for energy supply security. It is not. The result: they have added to the prevailing skepticism instead of dissipating it.

11. Even the deal’s significance from the point of view of our energy supply security has not been properly explained. The contract with Russia under which two nuclear power stations are presently being constructed by it at Koodankulam in Tamil Nadu is the last contract entered into by India before the restrictions imposed by the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) on nuclear trade with India came into force. Once the Russians implement this contract. we cannot enter into a fresh contract with any power or company in the world unless the NSG’s restrictions against India are removed.

12. Bush’s offer of the nuclear deal provided a small window of opportunity to have these restrictions removed thereby enabling new contracts. Manmohan Singh grabbed this opportunity. The merits of this deal have to be examined from the technical as well as political angles before deciding whether it is good or bad for the country.

13.In the technical examination, the questions to be asked are: Will the deal affect our present military nuclear capability and come in the way of our further improving it in future if forced to do so by future geopolitical situations vis-a-vis China and Pakistan? Will it come in the way of our research and development of the fast breeder and thorium-based technologies? Will the deal really strengthen our energy supply security?

14. In finding answers to these questions, one has to go by the professional advice of our serving scientists of today who are in the leadership position in our nuclear community. All of them, without exception, have stated categorically that by and large the deal will be beneficial to India and is necessary in the present context.

15. The negative voices have been coming from some senior and highly distinguished scientists, who occupied leadership positions in the nuclear scientific community during the days of our own cold war with the US, when the bilateral relations were marked by bitterness. The younger generation of our scientists, who make the policies today, have a more open mind to the US and do not allow memories of past bitterness to come in the way of innovative policy initiatives. Should the retired scientists of yesterday try to inhibit innovative re-thinking by making the debate emotional instead of remaining professional? They have every right and even duty to draw attention to what they look upon as pitfalls and traps. Once their comments have been considered by the serving scientists of today and they have come to the conclusion that the deal is worth giving a try, should the retired scientists carry on their dogged opposition and mobilise public and political opinion to prevent the impementation of the deal?

16. Immediately after signing the deal in July,2005, the Prime Minister said:” I told the Chairman of our Atomic Energy Commission. You have the veto power. If you say sign, I will sign it. If you say, don’t sign, I won’t.” After examining the draft, the Chairman of our Atomic Energy Commission advised the Prime Minister to accept it and he did. Since then, the Chairman has been consistent in his support for the deal. His technical judgement and that of his serving colleagues should be accepted without seeking to create doubts about them in the minds of the public.

17. The political aspect of the deal is more complex because many suspect—particularly the leftists— that the deal is not a stand-alone policy gesture by the US, but has come as part of a strategic relationship package.Many subsequent developments such as the talk of India and the US taking the initiative for a concert of democracies, growing military-military relationship, bilateral and multilateral military exercises etc are seen by the critics as indicating that the deal is as a quid pro quo for India joining as an undeclared ally of the US against China and accepting constraints on its policy-making with regard to countries such as Iran, which are anathema to the US.

18. The over-dramatisation of the malign nature of the Hyde Act in this context is misplaced. True, the Hyde Act seeks to impose a large number of extraneous dos and don’ts on the President in implementing the nuclear deal. In the US, the President is unimaginably powerful in foreign policy matters. How effectively any President adheres to the Hyde Act will depend on the state of over-all Indo-US relations and his own perception of India as a benign or a malign power. If a President continues to attach importance to India and has a favourable perception of India, he can find dozens of ways of circumventing the Act in order not to needle India. If the relations become bad and a future President does not like India, he can with equal ease find dozens of ways of needling India even if there be no Hyde Act.

19. We saw an example of this in the way George Bush, the father of the present President, avoided invoking the Congressionally-enacted Pressler Amendment against Pakistan for a long time. This Amendment called for economic and military sanctions against Pakistan if the President determined that Pakistan had embarked on a military nuclear programme and had acquired a military nuclear capability. Even though the CIA had been repeatedly telling him about Pakistan acquiring a military nuclear capability with Chinese assistance, he refrained from making any declaration against Pakistan and invoking the Amendment so long as the US needed Pakistan for the proxy war against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan. He invoked it only in 1990 long after the Soviet troops had left.

20. We are right in being concerned about many provisions of the Hyde Act and giving expression to them, but we should not allow these concerns to be over-blown and come in the way of further opening the Indo-US door.

21. Yes, it is a fact that the nuclear deal is not an act of charity by the US in a moment of magnanimity to India.It is part of a strategic package. Our examination of the package should be influenced not by our past memories of our relations with the US, but by our present experience of it and our future expectations ftom it. If we examine objectively, we will have to accept that a strategic partnership with the US can act as a much-needed catalysts in enabling us to catch up with China economically despite our belated start and moderating its military and big-power ambitions.

22. We have many valid grievances against the US—- its double standards on the continued use of terrorism by Pakistan against India and its reluctance to support India becoming a permanent member of the UN Security Council, to cite only two examples. While continuing to be articulate on such grievances, we should not let them come in the way of the Indo-US door opening more and more.

(The writer, Mr B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India,New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. )

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