Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Rescued from the abyss

Rescued from the abyss

Arun Shourie, Tuesday, August 22, 2006

In the first of a three-part analysis of the Indo-US nuclear deal, Arun Shourie argues that credibility has passed from the political class to professionals and entrepreneurs. And that the prime minister was wise to engage with the scientists’ misgivings

The prime minister’s statement in the Rajya Sabha on 17 August was a triumph for him – after months and months of seeming to be dragged along, he stood up. He spoke for the country. He drew a line.

And it was equally a triumph for all who have led the campaign to alert the country to the abyss into which we were being pulled. Leading defence analysts like Bharat Karnad and Brahma Chellaney; Yashwant Sinha from the BJP; Digvijay Singh from the JD(U); Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechurry from the CPI(M); and several others deserve the country’s gratitude for their unremitting labours in this regard. It is after a very long time that a public campaign has had a salutary outcome.

The most influential voice, of course, has been that of the scientists. And in that lies an important lesson which transcends the nuclear deal. They are the ones who have over the decades built our nuclear capability. They are the ones who know. That is why what they had to say on the nuclear deal just could not be ignored.

But their voice also carried greater weight because they are professionals. And in that lies a lesson. When Siachin is at stake, were the retired Army Chiefs to speak up, their message would count for more than anything anyone else could say. When reforms get blocked, if entrepreneurs who have built empires out of nothing, who have brought prosperity to millions, were to speak up; when institutions of excellence like the IITs and IIMs are sought to be shackled and stuffed with mediocres, were educationists to get together and speak up, were the alumni of these institutions — alumni who, after all, have changed the world’s perception of India, and India’s perception of itself — to detail the consequences, the wrecker’s hand would be stemmed.

Credibility has passed - from the political class to professionals and entrepreneurs. This is what the immense impact that the scientists have had this time round brings out dramatically. In a word, professionals should exercise the authority that has fallen to them, and speak up on issues that are their specialty. When they neglect to do so, they fail the country.

The nuclear issue has been exceptional in another respect also, and in that it holds a lesson for the media, at least for some in the media. This is one of the very, very few issues on which, and after a long time, well-reasoned, well-documented arguments have been carried by the print media - arguments both pro and con.

But some at least in the media must have been embarrassed by what the prime minister has now said. For on every particular, his statement was an acknowledgment that the apprehensions which have been expressed were valid about the direction in which Americans were taking our Government. Were some of our papers and reporters to look back on how much trust they placed on “backgrounders” and “briefings”, they would squirm. They were used to insinuate constructions which the prime minister has himself decisively put down.

Look at the benign interpretations they read into the House and Senate Bills and what the prime minister has now acknowledged about the real import of their provisions. Look at the way they greeted the “overwhelming vote” by which the Bill passed the US House of Representatives, and how the margin was projected as a victory — not just of the Bush Administration, but also of Indian diplomacy – when the overwhelming margin simply reflected the fact that, so many new conditions having been added to the Bill, the overwhelming proportion of legislators felt it would now overwhelmingly advance US’ objectives, and sink our autonomy.

“Amendments defeated”, some of our papers proclaimed and led readers to believe that, as this had happened, the Section binding India to assist US efforts in regard to Iran, the Section envisaging an India with a foreign policy “congruent to” that of the US were out. Readers were not told that, in fact, these Sections were very much a part of the main Bill, and, therefore, remained — amendments or no amendments.

The lesson thus is: the more contentious the issue, the more it has become a matter of prestige for a Government, the more wary

we should be of “backgrounders” and briefings.

Lessons for governments

There are lessons for Government also. The prime minister has spoken, he has spoken unambiguously. But he has spoken at last. It is to his credit that among the propositions he has now stated unambiguously are ones that can break the deal. But that he delayed articulating in public an unambiguous position in regard to them for so long now means that his interlocutors will conclude that the Government has gone back on what it was leading them to believe, that it has done so as it has had to succumb to pressures at home.

After all, several of the pronouncements had been ambiguous in the extreme. Thus, while answering a question in the Lok Sabha on 26 July, 2006, the PM said, “We will never compromise in a manner which is not consistent with the July 18 joint statement.” On the one side, it meant that, so as not to be surprised into surrender, every concerned person here must decipher which manner of compromise, and which particular compromises, would, in the view of Government, be consistent with the July 18 joint statement! To the US negotiators such statements would have signaled that our Government was going to be more flexible than they have now found it can be.

There were ambiguities even on the most consequential operational aspects. We do not wish to place any encumbrances on our Fast Breeder programme, the prime minister told Parliament on 7 March, 2006. In the next sentence, he said, however, that we have decided to place all future civilian thermal power reactors and breeder reactors under safeguards. Then that the fast Breeder Test Reactor and the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor would remain outside safeguards. Yet, immediately after that again that future civilian thermal power reactors and civilian Fast Breeder Reactors would be placed under safeguards. There always are ways to pare such statements and show them to be harmonious. But, just as easily, others can spot gaps through which to drive bargains.

Even when “unambiguous statements” were made, they were in fact empty vessels into which anything could be poured. To every apprehension, the answer used to be the bland assertion, “Nothing will be done that violates the 18 July joint statement.” But that sudden scripture was a general statement of intent, an empty vessel into which anything could be, and was being poured. Who, upon reading that general statement, could have detected that, through it, India had undertaken to close down, within four years, the recently renovated CIRUS reactor? This is one of the two research reactors that have been producing weapons grade plutonium (the other one is Dhruva). In fact, it has hitherto been supplying one-third of the fissile materials that we use for our weapons programme. Did anyone going through the 18 July statement deduce that such a critical reactor will be closed down as a consequence? And there is the related question: in view what that reactor has been yielding for our weapons programme, how candid was the prime minister when he told the Lok Sabha on 10 March 2006, “Both CIRUS and Apsara(whose core Government has agreed to shift out of the Bhabha complex) are NOT related to our strategic programme...”?

Moreover, as has been pointed out, the Government has pledged to close down this reactor in spite of our not having a reactor to replace what it has been supplying for our weapons-programme. And it has agreed to do so, in spite of the fact that, as Bharat Karnad has pointed out in The Asian Age (14 June, 2006), the Americans themselves have not been able to establish, even to their satisfaction, that we had violated any treaty obligation in regard to the use of materials from this reactor. US Undersecretary of State, Robert Joseph told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 2 November, 2005, that whether India had “illegally” used the CIRUS reactor for military purposes was still “inconclusive owing to the uncertainty as to whether US-supplied heavy water contributed to the production of plutonium used for the 1974 device.”

Specious arguments

And the case for postponing definiteness was being advanced by specious arguments. “The House and Senate Bill are just interim steps in the US legislative process,” we were told. “Let us wait for the final outcome.” “The US and Indian legislative processes are different,” we were told. “India is not bound by laws passed by the US Congress,” we were told, with much posturing of “standing firm”, of defiance. But the American President is bound by what the American Congress passes! How could he be expected to enter into an agreement with India which went contrary to the law that the US Congress had passed?

It is precisely because the legislative process, etc. are different in the US than they are in India that there was the utmost reason to speak up in time. In India, the power to enter into international agreements and treaties rests solely with the Executive. Parliament may discuss them, but it can do nothing about them - short of throwing out the Government, and the next Government repudiating them. But even that would be done by the Government on its own authority, not by Parliament. But in the US, the Senate has the ultimate power to ratify or reject international treaties and agreements that the US President may enter into or canvass. The League of Nations was in some ways the brainchild of President Wilson. The Senate threw out the agreement he had worked so hard to secure. The same thing happened recently in regard to the CTBT. As Dr P C Alexander reminded the Rajya Sabha during the debate, for three years President Clinton twisted the arm of many a Government to sign up on the CTBT. His own Senate threw out the very treaty that he had compelled others to sign. In a word, there has been every reason to speak up early, to speak unambiguously, to speak unambiguously in public so that no one in the US could be in doubt about what India will accept and what it will not. To wait till “the final outcome becomes available” would be to close all options.

The second lesson for governments engaged in such a far-reaching venture is: a leader must not let such a deal become a matter of personal prestige. He may well choose to sacrifice his post and government on an issue. But that because he regards the issue as vital for the country, or because he wants to make clear to those pushing him around where they get off. Never because he has allowed his personal prestige to get mixed up with the issue. The moment an issue becomes a matter of personal prestige for a ruler, others can wring one concession after another knowing that the ruler, so committed to seeing the matter through, will himself arrange that favourable constructions are put on those concessions.

Third, there is a lesson from the Dabhol agreement. At that time also, that agreement with Enron was being projected as being vital for Indo-American relations. It was being projected as being vital to sustain investor interest in India. As in the ensuing months its consequences became apparent, as the Maharashtra Electricity Board was pushed towards bankruptcy, that very agreement became a cause for the souring of relations and perceptions. Indians came to see Americans as ones who were out to exploit the country. Americans came to see in the fate of Dabhol yet another example of Indians not living up to an agreement.

The nuclear deal is being translated into concrete specifics in the Senate and House Bills. These, as we shall see, are iniquitous in the extreme. In these circumstances, to make the deal the test and symbol of improved Indo-US relations is to inject the vinegar that will sour relations again.

Nor is it ever a good defence, “But you were prepared to do the same thing. Does Talbot not say that Jaswant Singh was prepared to sign on the CTBT?”

Such arguments are silly on their face. Even if India had signed the CTBT, that would have had no consequence at all - the CTBT cannot come into effect unless 40 countries sign it, including US, China, Pakistan, etc. The US Senate has already thrown the treaty out. Even if we had signed the treaty, and even if it had come into force, our options would not be shut in perpetuity, for the CTBT has a clause by which a country can withdraw from it on grounds of “supreme national interest”. In the US Bills we are cabined “in perpetuity”. There is no circumstance at all, as we shall soon see, in which we can, for instance, resume tests.

Specifics apart, there is a fundamental flaw in the “But you were going to do the same thing” alibi. Assume for a moment, that some previous government would have inflicted some grave harm on the country. How does that entitle a successor government to take or extend that ruinous step?

In a word, what is done by a government has to be assessed and defended on merits. And it is this – what was being done in the wake of the general statement of 18 July — which had come to cause the gravest apprehensions.

(To be continued)

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