Debating India


Critics of convenience

Thursday 16 March 2006, by MALHOTRA*Inder

On March 5, Jaswant Singh, leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, issued, on behalf of his party, the BJP, an elaborate press release on the joint statement three days earlier by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and visiting American President George Bush. Of this, surprisingly, the media took practically no notice. Yet, the document is so revealing in the 19 questions it raises that it merits close analysis.

The first thing to notice is that the BJP wants to have its cake and eat it too. As the “initiator” of the process of “strategic cooperation with the United States”, says the Jaswant Singh release, the BJP is “gratified” by the March 2 statement. This statement, it adds, is an “explicit confirmation”, by the UPA government, of the “continuing validity” of the BJP-NDA government’s “initiative of deepening, broadening and strengthening relations” with the US, and of the “centrality of that policy”.

In the same breath, the BJP blandly accuses the Manmohan Singh government of having “surrendered” India’s national interest on “two important” counts. First, the placing of 14 of 22 nuclear plants under safeguards would “clearly result in a gap on the fissile material available for weapons purposes”. This, sadly, is a classic case of partisan politics triumphing over sense of responsibility or even accuracy.

If the BJP leaders, who have ruled the country for six years, cannot accept the prime minister’s categorical assurance that the integrity of the credible minimum deterrent in the changing situation is in no way affected, what about the same assertion by the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Anil Kakodkar, and other eminent nuclear scientists who had initially voiced some doubts but now declare that their concerns have been fully addressed?

Moreover, the ayatollahs of nonproliferation in the US, who are working overtime to persuade the US Congress to “kill the deal”, are screaming that the separation agreement, instead of capping Indian nuclear weapon programme, would be a licence to India to “double or triple” its nuclear arsenal. Surely, both they and the author of the BJP press release cannot be right.

Third, according to an eminent columnist known to be close to the BJP, what Brajesh Mishra, principal secretary and national security adviser to Atalji, offered to put under safeguards in 2002 would, in 2006, have added up to two-thirds of the power plants. So who has surrendered what and to whom?

The BJP’s misleading claims and insinuations could have been disregarded as born of pique or ignorance had they come from the likes of Rajnath Singh or Venkaiah Naidu, but not when they emanate from someone who has been external affairs, defence and finance minister and, more importantly, the Indian interlocutor during the marathon nuclear dialogue with the then US deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbott. As it happens, Talbott has revealed in his book Engaging India (Penguin, 2004) all that Jaswant Singh was willing to concede to the US but was mercifully deterred from doing. In the circumstances, the expression “surrender” comes ill from him.

Before explaining that, however, it is only fair to acknowledge that there is some substance in Jaswant Singh’s second point about the placing of Indian civilian reactors under safeguards in “perpetuity”. Doubtless, the prime minister’s July 29 statement in Parliament had declared that India would accept only those obligations as apply to the other five nuclear weapon powers. These Five can put a facility under safeguards and pull it out at will. This privilege India cannot get because it needs to import uranium, while the other five don’t. Nobody would give this country uranium to fuel reactors earmarked as military. There surely was a failure to realise this in July. But to call it a “surrender” is to overstretch the point.

As for what Jaswant Singh was prepared to offer, he repeatedly though privately assured Talbott that this country would sign the CTBT although there was a parliamentary resolution firmly prohibiting that. At first he wanted to act quietly and in slow stages to “favourably alter the context in which the treaty might be looked at anew” (Talbott, page 98). Later, in the presence of Sandy Berger, national security adviser to President Clinton, Jaswant reassured Talbott that “Vajpayee had taken an ?irreversible’ decision to sign the CTBT - it was just a question of how and when to make that decision public” (page 123). In January 1999, “Jaswant said that India would sign the CTBT by May. (He) also assured me that under the Indian system, signature was tantamount to ratification” (page 145).

No less shocking is the way in his talks with the Americans Jaswant Singh trashed the draft Nuclear Doctrine that was later adopted and still is the nation’s Nuclear Doctrine. When Talbott “registered a strong objection” to the draft doctrine, especially against the “triad” of mobile land-based missiles, airborne weapons and under-sea assets, Jaswant Singh replied, “It was not really even a doctrine - it was just a set of recommendations that Vajpayee would almost certainly not accept. The United States should not ?dignify’ it by overreacting’ (page 172).

After this what face has Jaswant Singh or the BJP to “caution” the Manmohan government not to allow strategic partnership with the US to turn into “strategic dependency” or “strategic lock-in” with American national interest? In this context, the party’s 19 quibbles with the UPA are hardly worth discussing.

It is also interesting that BJP apparently does not realise how grotesque is its apparent attempt to join hands with the Left, completely or partially, on either the nuclear deal or the Iran vote. Especially after the two Communist parties had vigorously condemned it for the 1998 nuclear tests. How pertinent was a remark heard at a meeting presided over by former prime minister Inder Gujral, “The March 5 announcement has certainly made history - by bringing about an alliance between the BJP, the Left Front, the nonproliferation fundamentalists in America, Pakistan, China and Iran.

See online : The Indian Express

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