It is time for the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to sit up and take a long, hard look at India's foreign policy, of which he has been directly in charge now for six months. He must do it quickly for his own protection because depth and insight are returning to the Bharatiya Janata Party's views on external affairs.
Less than three weeks ago, the BJP finally came round to a considered view that the nuclear deal between Manmohan Singh and the president of the United States of America, George W. Bush, is not in India's interest because of the way this agreement is presently structured. This decision ' which will have long-term implications for Indo-US relations ' was not an easy one for the leading opposition party in its present state of health.
An unintended fallout of L.K. Advani's Jinnah episode last year was the virtual turfing out of Yashwant Sinha from any role of consequence within the BJP, especially on matters of foreign policy. The accident of Sinha's shift from North to South Block during the second half of the Vajpayee government's tenure had become an albatross around the party's neck after it lost power. Following the Jinnah episode, Sinha first lost his job as the party's spokesman, and soon afterwards, any influence on the decision-making process in the BJP on policy.
Jaswant Singh is now the final arbiter on external affairs in the BJP, and whatever else may be wrong with the party now, he is making an imprint within the ranks of the opposition in that role. As part of a laboured effort to reach an unambiguous stand on the Indo-US nuclear deal, Jaswant Singh has compiled three files of more than 300 pages on the follow-up to the deal, which includes American Congressional testimonies and policy speeches. They also include answers to 82 questions by the US state department to Senator Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, which is currently scrutinizing the arrangement with India.
At Jaswant Singh's prodding, several people in leadership positions in the BJP have now gone through these documents. In addition, he has been explaining the intricacies of the agreement and its implications to his party's MPs. It is proof of the thoroughness with which the former external affairs minister has ingested the complexities of the July 18 deal and its follow-up that he can quote almost verbatim from a testimony by the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, or a Congressional question by Senator Paul Sarbanes, without opening his files or thumbing through its voluminous material.
What Manmohan Singh has to worry about is that what the leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha has done by way of dissecting, analyzing and interpreting the agreement is much more than what can be said of anybody in his council of ministers. Not Anand Sharma, the minister of state for external affairs; certainly not E. Ahamed, the other minister of state in South Block. With his hands full, it is highly unlikely that Manmohan Singh himself has gone through every bit of documentation on the follow-up to the deal, the prime minister's formidable reputation for detail notwithstanding.
Thanks to such thorough work, the BJP now wants to pick holes in the prime minister's contention that his nuclear deal with Bush will bring about India's energy security. Jaswant Singh has told his party colleagues in parliament and outside that even the idea that eight per cent of India's energy-needs will be met in two decades if the deal is on track is illusory. The BJP has also come to the conclusion on the basis of developments in Washington and New Delhi, after Bush's visit to India, that what the nuclear deal in its present form will bring for the country is worse than the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and equally, worse than the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The BJP now believes, after reconsidering the mood on Capitol Hill and Congressional testimony by Bush administration officials, that the promise to India in the July 18 White House joint statement by Bush and Manmohan Singh ' of 'same benefits and advantages as other leading countries with advanced nuclear technology, such as the US' ' will remain a mirage as long as India is not accepted as a nuclear weapons state. What is extremely disturbing for the party is Rice's unequivocal statement that 'India is not and is not going to become a member of the NPT (as) a nuclear weapons state', and that 'this initiative with India does not seek to renegotiate or amend the NPT'. The only way India can gain the status of a nuclear weapons state is through the NPT, but that option has been shut by Rice on New Delhi's face.
Under these circumstances, it is the BJP's view that going ahead with the nuclear deal in its present format will be tantamount to India accepting a permanent backward status in the global nuclear arena. Jaswant Singh's research has detected a growing dissonance between the Indian government and the Bush administration on the fundamentals of the agreement, with New Delhi insisting that its deal with the US is about energy, not about arms control or non-proliferation, and Rice poetically describing 'energy and non-proliferation as the two halves of the same walnut'.
As the follow-up negotiations progress, between India and the US on the one hand and between India and the International Atomic Energy Agency on the other, the opposition intends to take the prime minister to task for going back on his commitment to parliament that New Delhi will negotiate an additional protocol with the IAEA only after the US has enacted legislation exempting India from American laws that prohibit Indo-US nuclear trade. The opposition will also object to India's ongoing discussions of that protocol with American officials even as the country is being kept in the dark about the content of these discussions.
A nine-page letter written by Jaswant Singh to Manmohan Singh is a long list of the BJP's objections to the deal in the light of new, day-to-day developments. Among the more serious objections is the absence in the agreement of a mutually acceptable mechanism to determine if India is in violation of the safeguards on its nuclear plants, which will be in perpetuity. 'Who, Mr Prime Minister, reports, then examines and finally judges whether there is any violation' asks a concerned Jaswant Singh of the prime minister in his letter. It is an important question because a judgement of violation can make the agreement null and void, and overturn the entire energy edifice that is built on it.
Jaswant Singh's thorough research into all aspects of the nuclear deal and its follow-up is reminiscent of the preparations on the Indian side that went into each of his meetings as deputy chairman of the Planning Commission and later as external affairs minister with Strobe Talbott, Bill Clinton's deputy secretary of state. Those meetings led to an easing of sanctions against India for Pokhran II and the dawn of a new era in Indo-US relations.
That said, the BJP is not against a nuclear deal with the US: it is only against the deal as it is structured now in terms of follow-up action to the July 18 agreement. Countries like Israel, which are sure of where it is going on an issue or a policy, often bring in the opposition to work with the government on such issues. Given Jaswant Singh's success rate in Washington with Talbott, the prime minister should perhaps find a way of involving the leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha in the negotiations with the US instead of just briefing him, if the nuclear deal is to be pushed through to its logical end.