The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The American obsession with legal details

Shortly after I started living in Washington, an American friend asked a tongue-in-cheek question to test my knowledge of American society. The question: “What constitutes a typical family in the US'” He then corrected my answer as follows: “A typical American family is made up of a husband and wife, two children, a lawyer and a dog.” I was to realize in due course that the lawyer is actually the most indispensable component of this nuclear family.

The dog’s very survival depends on the law. Every community in the United States of America has clear and detailed rules about keeping pets. Several cities restrict by law the number of pets in a household to two: that means if you keep two goldfish, for example, and have a dog, the canine is in danger of being hauled away to be put to sleep or up for adoption. The alternative is to give up one goldfish and keep the dog so that you are not in violation of the law.

With divorce rates as high as 33 per cent for first marriages in the US and a half of second and third marriages in trouble, lawyers have a role in the lives of couples even before they enter into wedlock. Many couples, especially the well-heeled, enter into detailed pre-nuptial agreements before they exchange vows. These agreements, drawn up by lawyers, set out how the assets of a couple will be divided if they divorce or one partner meets with death.

If those in India who criticize the bill overwhelmingly passed on Capitol Hill last week approving the Indo-US nuclear deal had met my friend who familiarized me with an important aspect of life in America, they would be more accepting of the legislation that has the potential to transform India’s place in the world. It is America’s obsession with legal detail which has resulted in the proliferation of a few paragraphs in a joint statement on July 18 last year into a 42-page bill by December, 2006.

Those who criticize the bill forget that 22 years ago, when India signed a memorandum of understanding on access to sensitive US technologies, it was a document which was infinitely loaded to India’s disadvantage. And yet, Indira Gandhi — even her enemies will not accuse her of being soft on Washington — agreed to the thrust and content of that MoU in one of the last acts of her prime ministership shortly before her assassination. That MoU gave India its first Cray XMP14 supercomputer, which was bought by the country’s meteorological department for critical weather research and forecasting. But the agreement with the US meant that the supercomputer was to be used by the meteorological department only under US supervision.

Some years later, the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore sought another Cray supercomputer under the same agreement, but the bid was rebuffed by the Americans on the ground that the milieu in an educational institution for use of dual-technology equipment was less stringent than in a government facility like the meteorological department. Humiliating, certainly. But if the 1984 MoU had not been agreed upon by Indian and American negotiators as a first step in New Delhi’s sustained effort to bring sensitive technology into the country, the steady inflow of dual-use items and technology into India would not have been possible.

India and the US gradually established a modus vivendi for trade in sensitive items. Sure, there were hiccups in the process. But despite the nuclear tests in 1998, a High Technology Cooperation Group eventually cleared the way for streamlining that trade. Initiated by the Vajpayee government, the HTCG graduated into the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership, which led to sweeping progress in India’s access to American sensitive technology, in much the same way that the Chinese were able to get such technology at least a decade earlier.

There is a parallel between this 22-year effort by India, which has culminated in access to highly sensitive American technology and what is happening with the nuclear deal. If anyone had asked E.M.S. Namboodiripad or Indrajit Gupta for his opinion of the 1984 MoU, his attitude would have been the same as that of Prakash Karat today about the bill passed by the US Congress last week. But just as the MoU 22 years ago has gradually been turned around to the country’s advantage, bringing it benefits in education and science to defence and domestic security, the nuclear deal can be to the country’s gain. Indeed, India cannot hope to take its place in the new millennium without shedding its status as a nuclear outcast in the eyes of the world.

It was for this reason that the National Democratic Alliance government sounded out the Bush administration in 2002 about the possibility of civilian nuclear cooperation between India and the US. To be fair to the Bharatiya Janata Party, no details were discussed. This was because the Bush administration did not respond at all to the proposal made by New Delhi at that time. Instead, after several months of silence, the Americans proposed the NSSP. The NDA leadership saw that there were benefits for India in initiating the NSSP with the Bush administration.

Shortly after the United Progressive Alliance government assumed office, the Bush administration began looking for follow-up activity to the NSSP, which was nearing completion. But even when Indian and US officials met in May 2005 to discuss nuclear-related cooperation, the modest expectation in New Delhi was that fuel supplies could be resumed for Tarapur and that contacts with the US nuclear regulatory commission, cut off because of India’s nuclear activities, could be restored some time in the future.

It is to the credit of Ronen Sen, India’s ambassador to the US — who had never worked in Washington before and disapproved of the way Indian diplomacy was practised in the city — that the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, was told about the effort India would have to put in because fuel for Tarapur would be no less than what New Delhi would have to invest in if it went for something much bigger, which appeared to be beyond the country’s reach at the time.

When Singh met the US president, George W. Bush, at Gleneagles, Scotland, in July 2005 for the G-8 summit, both sides agreed that even after making all that effort, much political capital would have to be invested in a global effort to make any nuclear fuel regularly available to India. The Indo-US nuclear deal was born out of the realization that if India had to be meaningfully helped in meeting its minimum requirements, such as fuel for Tarapur, a multilateral political initiative of global dimensions was required. That, in any case, was what France and Russia have been telling India since Pokhran-II, urging New Delhi to start the initiative in Washington.

It is a reflection of the domestic resistance encountered by the Bush administration in this bilaterally agreed effort to change the rules for global nuclear commerce that more hearings have been held on Capitol Hill in the last one year on the Indo-US nuclear deal than on Iraq, which is beginning to tear America apart.

Ideally, it would have been best for India if the bill passed by the US Congress last week had contained only one paragraph to say that India is hereby exempted from the requirements of the US Atomic Energy Act. But that is not the way states function. No government, barring aberrations like that of V.P. Singh and I.K. Gujral, likes to give away anything in a spirit of altruism to another country. Many of those who criticize the nuclear deal with Washington are unaware that it was never easy for India to get something worthwhile from the Soviet Union. Repeatedly, Indira Gandhi had to intervene personally with Leonid Brezhnev to overcome state resistance against transactions that normally a Soviet communist party supremo would not even hear of.

Given the resistance at various levels in the US to making an exception for India in nuclear matters, taking into account the sensitivities in the Congress over what its members see as an attempt to blindside them on what is being done with New Delhi, the Indian effort towards passing legislation on the nuclear deal has been largely to ensure that the bill does not kill the deal or become a stumbling block for India’s military nuclear programme. New Delhi’s effort in the coming months should be to see that the agreements that are to follow — the so-called 123 agreement setting out the nitty-gritty of the deal, the safeguards pact with the International Atomic Energy Agency and changes to the Nuclear Suppliers Group guidelines — enable the realization of what was set out to achieve in the joint statement by Singh and Bush in July, last year.

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