Washington, July 20: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will return home tonight, having unleashed a worldwide storm that threatens to bury a discriminatory global nuclear non-proliferation regime his predecessors have unsuccessfully tried to change for at least four decades.
The full force of the nuclear storm, which the Prime Minister has set in motion, is not yet being felt: its early gusts are between the lines of a joint statement issued after Singh and President George W. Bush ended their talks.
Singh is taking home an endorsement of India’s unfettered right to not only continue the nuclear weapons programme, but also expand it. India will not stop producing fissile material needed for nuclear weapons.
Nor is it required to initial any Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, which discriminates between countries that have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and those, like India, that have refused to do so.
Singh secured an unexpected prize when Bush agreed with him that in New Delhi’s quest for nuclear energy, it would be India’s prerogative to separate its “civilian and military nuclear facilities and programmes”.
The implications of such an agreement, spelt out in black and white in the joint statement, are two-fold: India, not another country, not any international agency, will determine which of its nuclear facilities will be used for military purposes. Such military facilities will not be opened up for any inspection.
Second, such voluntary separation means India retains the right to build more reactors for its nuclear weapons programme and expand its nuclear armoury at its discretion.
Behind such gains, which Singh is taking home, is the story of dogged negotiations, arguments, even verbal duels which bordered on acrimony: ironically, not between the Indian and the US delegations but among the star-studded team of negotiators who accompanied the Prime Minister.
On one side were representatives of the scientific community who would not agree to open nuclear facilities to international agencies. On the other were diplomats who could not permit the Prime Minister to return without something to show for the visit.
Ronen Sen, the ambassador to the US, was drafted in to work out a compromise. Sen made changes to the draft of the joint statement sent by the US.
Those changes took care of the apprehensions of the scientific community, leaving India with the freedom to operate its indigenous nuclear programme much in the same way it has been doing so far.
Once the disagreement within the Indian camp had been sorted out came the cliffhanger: will the Americans agree to the changes, which implied that India was a nuclear weapons state'
On Sunday, US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice sent word that she wanted to meet external affairs minister Natwar Singh.
But the minister was in New York, meeting the Group of Four foreign ministers on India’s quest for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. He was to leave New York for Washington only at 7 pm.
The Prime Minister asked Natwar Singh to rush here and he advanced his departure from New York by four hours to meet Rice. She agreed in principle to the changes, but there was still one imponderable: will Bush take this giant leap to pave the way for India’s formal entry into the nuclear club'
It was only when the Prime Minister and the President sat down for their formal talks on Monday that the Indians got the answer they wanted.