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Monday, August 6, 2007

Best possible semantic consensus

The text of the much debated 123 agreement between India and the United States that will allow for cooperation in the civilian nuclear sector between the two countries was made public on Friday (August 3).

A careful reading of the 22 pages that comprise 17 detailed articles will suggest that this document represents the best possible semantic consensus that could have been arrived at between two vibrant democracies that have been bitterly opposed on the nuclear issue for close onto 33 years — from May 1974 in the aftermath of the Indian Peaceful Nuclear Explosion (PNE) — to date.

Given the orientation of the bilateral relationship between the world’s oldest and largest democracies over the last four decades wherein ‘estrangement’ was the leitmotif of the relationship and the larger international-cum-regional strategic context in which the nuclear issue was located, it would be fair to say that this consensus over the text of the 123 agreement marks a radical and historic trajectory for both nations.

It was driven by a very clear and objective determination of the new strategic realities of the 21st century and the manner in which the two states could maximise their respective positions against the backdrop of the turbulence of globalisation impelled by relentless technological advances.

This bold departure to recast the template of the bilateral relationship was heralded by the George Bush-Manmohan Singh agreement of July 18, 2005 (J18) and in many ways, the 123 agreement’s text allows both leaders to make good their commitments to each other — and more importantly to their respective domestic constituencies.

The latter assumes great import in a vibrant democracy for the political leadership and since the nuclear issue arouses such prickly sensitivities in both countries, the shift in fiercely guarded national positions merits empathetic attention.

Much of the debate in both the US and India since J18 to August 3 demonstrates how policy makers sought to accommodate and allay the concerns expressed and square what must rank as the prickliest circle of the nuclear age since Hiroshima of 1945.

Critics on both sides are equally vehement in claiming that their leadership has ‘sold out’: in India that the right to test has been mortgaged to the US and in the US that India has been allowed to have its cake and eat it too, despite it nuclear defiance — meaning the May 1974 PNE, the obdurate refusal to sign the NPT and worse still, carrying out the May 1998 nuclear tests! Conflict resolution practitioners and negotiating strategy gurus will recognise with wry satisfaction that if both sides are equally dissatisfied and vehement in venting their ire over a deal, then it must be a good one.

India had three principal concerns since J18 and these included the right to retain the option to carry out a nuclear test if the national interest so warranted; the assurance that there would be no repeat of the Tarapur experience when the US cited domestic law and unilaterally terminated its fuel supply agreement; and the right to be able to reprocess spent fuel, which is critical for the three-stage fast breeder/thorium route that India envisages in coming years.

Section 14 of the 123 agreement dwells on the exigency of when and how the termination clause may be invoked and here it merits note that this has been placed in a detailed security context and precludes the possibility of any immediate or unconsidered executive action by the US. In short, there is no fear that punitive sanctions or immediate return of US supplied material will automatically kick in.

But the salience of a potential Indian nuclear test and its relative index in what India is about to obtain as a result of J18 begs detailed politico-strategic and techno-economic cost-benefit analysis by way of gaming or scenario building scrutiny over the next three decades. Should India prioritise the unfettered right to carry out a nuclear test at some indeterminate point in the future as the sole determinant of the national interest in August 2007?

The answer is an emphatic no. India’s abiding national interest at this point lies in seeking the removal of the technology denial regimes and the nuclear apartheid status that has been its cross to bear since May 1974. And the charge against India at the time was led by the Washington Beltway with the tacit support of all the major powers including Moscow and Paris.

In any event, a close reading of Section 14 and the other explanatory notes suggests that India will still have the right to test — if it so desires — but the US will have the right to respond as per its legislation. Here the myth must be dispelled that J18 and the current 123 agreement derived from the Hyde Act of December 2006 place additional penalties on India in the event of a future nuclear test. It may be recalled that US law going back to 1954 (which precedes J18 by 51 years) is an existential reality and an Indian test would have elicited the same US response in any case.

Section 5 of the full text of 123 agreement addresses, to my mind, the guarantees for fuel supplies and the reprocessing anxiety — though the latter will have to be negotiated separately. What is more relevant is that over the last few months it is the United States that has shown the flexibility to concur on the right to reprocess and this is not notional. Furthermore, this is not an immediate requirement for India given the nascent experimental stage of the breeder programme.

Perhaps at the end of the day, what will shape the success or stifling of the George Bush-Manmohan Singh J18 initiative is the trust factor — a nuance alluded to by the National Security Adviser M K Narayanan in a recent media interview. India and the US are yet to develop the appropriate level of trust and confidence in the ‘other’ and the received wisdom on both sides is still shackled by the inheritance of the Cold War. A new phase in the bilateral ties beckons and it will not be smooth but the text of the 123 agreement should provide the requisite foundation.

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