| Counting costs
The parliamentary and public debate on the Indo-US nuclear deal has, predictably, focussed on two questions. To what extent has the United States of America shifted the goal post since the July 18 agreement' What fetters will the nuclear deal impose upon the development of India’s nuclear programme' These concerns underlie the open letter that a group of prominent scientists have written to the prime minister. In some ways this is an awkward moment to discuss these questions, because the deal is still a work in progress. What will be the final shape of the deal that emerges from the Congress' What exactly are the protocols we will negotiate with the International Atomic Energy Agency' The answer to these questions is not entirely clear. The scientists are, rightly, concerned that if the evidence of the debate in the House of Representatives and the separation plan we have supposedly presented, are anything to go by, India is going to accept more restrictions than we originally admitted. But in his statement to the parliament on Tuesday, the prime minister did as statesmanlike a job as anyone could have to allay some of these fears. Even for those who are not ultimately persuaded by the deal, the prime minister’s statement was a rare example of public reason at work that vastly elevated the debate.
We also have to recognize that in any deal of this kind there will be some constructive ambiguity in the final outcome. It is a deal that has to simultaneously find acceptability amongst the non-proliferation lobby in the US and the nuclear hawks in India. And the only way this circle will be squared is by some fudging: put some formal procedures in place, whose actual effects cannot be inferred from the text of the deal itself. It will ultimately boil down to how much India and the US are willing to trust each other — always a tricky judgment call.
But there is one important set of issues that is receiving almost no attention. What exactly is India’s indigenous technological capability in the nuclear field' There are no clear answers to three vital questions. Here both the scientists and the government speak with forked tongues. First, how much uranium and other necessary fuel can we produce from indigenous sources' In the days before the agreement there was much talk about a fuel crisis. But it is now emerging that the uranium shortage is only a short-term shortage; if we were determined we could supply enough for both our military programme and civilian energy needs. If this is the case, the argument for the deal becomes less compelling.
Second, what exactly is our technological capability with respect to the fast breeder programme, the three-stage plan that has been the holy grail of Indian nuclear ambitions, and our ability to use thorium-based reactors' Again, the assessments, from credible authorities, floating around seem to vary wildly: from roughly thinking a lot of this programme is junk to thinking it is close to fruition. Both the scientists and the government have muddied the waters by not coming clean on this vital issue. Of course, there is an understandable reticence on this matter: exposing a weak hand could diminish your bargaining potential. But if our own technological capabilities are of an order that, combined with access to indigenous fuel, it can make us self-sufficient, the argument for the deal looks less attractive.
The scientists are right in one respect: what is at stake in the deal is the credibility of Indian science itself. But they are underestimating the degree to which they them- selves need to come clean on India’s slow achievements in this area. While both the scientists and the government are insisting that we will maintain our independence, the crucial operative question is capability.
The third question has to do with the scale and ambition of our nuclear programme. This has two aspects. Are we convinced, in cost terms, that imported nuclear energy is the best option for us' (Remember we have not entombed even a single plant yet). We have a voluntary moratorium on testing, but how vital will testing in the future be to maintain the credibility of our programme' Again, the debate on the credibility of India’s tests is deeply divided; some even argue that Pakistan’s arsenal is more reliably tested than ours. And are we willing to bear the political and economic costs of testing' At the moment we are simply postponing the question, without framing it in the larger context of India’s nuclear strategy. What you think of the deal depends upon what you think your nuclear doctrine is, and at the moment we do not have one. A “credible minimum deterrent” is a phrase, not a doctrine.
Therefore the nuclear debate, like so many debates, has become an issue of subjective judgment rather than one of objective facts. The opposition is reduced to saying: we don’t trust the government, or the Americans. The government is reduced to saying: trust the integrity of the prime minister; he will do nothing to compromise India’s interests. The debate is about intentions rather than outcomes, aspirations rather than strategy. And the debate is muddied by another peculiar fact. Newspapers and television channels are entitled to run their editorial lines depending upon what they judge to be the right thing in this matter.
But I cannot recall a single issue on which large sections of the media have acted as virtual lobbyists for one or the other side, as they have on this issue (and it has to be said, largely for the deal). The word “lobbyist” is advisable, because advocacy of a particular point of view has gone beyond sticking to editorial lines, carrying op-eds favouring the deal: it has permeated even reporting and presentation through and through. There is an unprecedented ideological blitzkrieg on the issue that goes beyond usual media enthusiasm and calls for some reflection, if not explanation. The very ugliness with which arguments are being made makes you wonder what we think the deal is about. Certainly the drab economics of energy or even the morbid fascination with strategy cannot explain the frenzied character of the debate. As always, the symbolism of the deal, the way we have made it a marker of identity (progressive versus stuck-in-the-past, a symbol of our modernity itself) is trumping hard facts.
The prime minister spoke of “risks” the deal entails. How significant these risks are is a judgment call. No one doubts our intent to be independent, but there are subtle ways in which an excessive emotional investment in Indo-US relations is clouding our larger picture of the world. This is reflected, the prime minister’s statement on Iraq notwithstanding, in our lack of serious criticism of Bush’s self defeating anti-terrorism strategy. No matter what we say about our own non-proliferation record, the deal legitimizes nuclear weapons in a big way. China and Pakistan already had substantial links, but there was an opportunity to diminish those linkages. Our deal opens up the way for even more intense China-Pakistan nuclear collaboration. Are we happy with the prospect of a couple of dozen more reactors in Pakistan, under the control of a regime we cannot make up our minds about'
Perhaps the Sino-American rivalry, and the US-Middle East tension, the two most significant axes of conflict in the world today, will turn out to be inconsequential in the long run. But are we already signalling that we are taking sides in these conflicts' And what will be the political costs of our position' The real debate is not, as we are currently obsessed, over our independence understood in some formal sense; it is about our science and our conception of the world — two issues everyone in parliament will duck.