The prime minister’s abandonment of his campaign to take India into the nuclear club has been a sensation. Since he had himself initiated and steered the manoeuvre, the media have taken its abrupt termination to be a personal defeat for him. Whether it was or not is not an important issue. Manmohan Singh is a survivor, and will outlive this reverse. In the worst-case scenario, his government may run into another crisis and be pulled down. Even then, he will have been prime minister for three years — longer than Morarji Desai, Chandra Sekhar or H.D. Deve Gowda. He can then put his feet up with a sense of satisfaction. Jaswant Singh, in his brief tenure as finance minister, had proposed to replace gross national product by gross national contentment. Gross national product is doing just fine, and Manmohan Singh could retire with gross personal contentment if he were so inclined. At worst, he would continue to be member of the upper house, get a magnificent Lutyens bungalow and become an elder statesman like Inder Kumar Gujral. His future is as bright as that of any moderately successful politician; and on the average, that tribe lives long and well.
What is more consequential is the future of foreign policy. The communists, who sabotaged Manmohan Singh’s initiative, think that its failure takes us back to the state of affairs before he ventured out, and are imagining a foreign policy alternative that would make us brothers of China, Russia, and motley developing nations — all except the hated Western alliance. They imagine the world as a static place — a chessboard on which pawns posing as countries are frozen. They are mistaken.
The nuclear issue has two aspects — the weapons part and the energy part. Taking weapons first, nuclear bombs give a nation a military advantage over a non-nuclear nation; if the latter contemplated fighting the former, it would have to take the risk of a nuclear attack, which could kill millions and render entire cities desolate. So nuclear weapons give nations a degree of immunity from major invasions. Conversely, nations that want to be in a position to invade other countries would prefer to ensure, and would ensure by means of hostile acts, that other nations do not possess nuclear weapons. The hostile acts may range from invasion to subversion and economic warfare. Economic warfare did bring North Korea to its knees and force it to give up its nuclear deterrent.
However, if a nuclear power gives another country nuclear weapons or helps it manufacture them, it is difficult for other nuclear powers to prevent it. That is why they formed a club, signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and agreed on the rules that none of them would further the creation of further nuclear powers and that, if they built nuclear power stations for non-nuclear countries, they would keep strict control over the fissile material the power plants used and generated. The former Soviet Union was not a member of this club, and did give help to China, North Korea and Iran, which the club rules would not have allowed. But after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia has followed the rules. So has China. Israel and South Africa have nuclear weapons but behave as if they do not have them, and have also adhered to the club rules.
So did India, although it was not admitted to the club. But it was Pakistan that got the nuclear club worried. Not only did A.Q. Khan steal nuclear secrets and smuggle equipment from Western countries, but Pakistan boasted of its bomb being an Islamic bomb. Hence the United States of America became strongly interested in containing and possibly subjugating Pakistan.
It was this fear of Pakistan that Jaswant Singh played on when he met Strobe Talbot in 1999; his idea was that the US needed India if it wanted to control Pakistan. It is impossible to know what terms he was offered; it is likely that they were not too different from those later offered to Manmohan Singh. They ran into opposition from the top leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the negotiations petered out.
Once the National Democratic Alliance government fell, the US started negotiations with Manmohan Singh. The terms he was offered ran into opposition from the communists this time, and the negotiations collapsed again. Manmohan Singh showed some complaisance on the collapse. It may be because he understands that it is in America’s interest to get India into the nuclear club, and that the next government — which may be Manmohan Singh’s — will get another chance to join it; the communists may not be in a position to block him then. What is sad is that the US needs India as part of the vice to immobilize Pakistan — and that India’s hold on Pakistan would have been far stronger if it had had American support. That is what the communists have scuttled.
Coming now to power, India can build nuclear power plants on its own, as it has; it may also be true that Russia will be prepared to sell it nuclear power plants and uranium enrichment plants. But if India became a member of the nuclear club, it could freely import and export power plants, fissile material, heavy water and other ancillaries. There would be far more suppliers of these things to India, and they would have to compete. India would obtain access to a much wider range of technologies, and be able to buy goods and technologies much cheaper than if it were to go alone.
Critics have belittled the nuclear argument on the grounds that nuclear power would form only a small part of India’s energy supply. This proportion is not fixed; it depends on the cost of nuclear power. If the power were cheaper, its share could be greater. Electricity will be between a third and a half of final energy consumption; if it could be used to manufacture a substitute for hydrocarbons — for instance, to make hydrogen by electrolysis of air — its share could be greater. And all of that share could be of nuclear power if it were cheap enough. I believe that the capital costs of nuclear power plants are extremely high because too few of them have been built, and because they have been built by governments or under over-cautious government controls. So the potential damage of the failure to enter the nuclear club to India’s energy supply — and hence to India’s potential for growth — is far graver than the impact on its military strength. This is so even if one did not believe in the possibility of global warming — a non-belief that the temperatures of the past decade have made it difficult to maintain.
The collapse of the 123 negotiations was a defeat for Manmohan Singh; but far greater was his failure to communicate the strong case he had to his allies and his people. The benefits of the tiny reforms of the early Nineties are obvious to all today. Those reforms ground soon to a halt because the politicians and the people could not be convinced of their future benefits. So has the opening up of India’s nuclear options.