Tuesday, November 13, 2007

On nuclear deal, India’s communists move from “No” to “Maybe”

India’s communists, who had threatened to scuttle its coalition government with the Congress party over the nuclear deal with the US, is now softening its stance. The Left, which had earlier said that the government should not operationalize the deal, including negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is now saying that the government can go ahead and negotiate with the IAEA, provided it does not finalize an agreement.

Communist Party of India (CPI) General Secretary A B Bardhan told Indian TV channel NDTV that the government could go to the IAEA, the UN's atomic body as long as they don't finalize any agreement, according to this report.

Now why should the Indian government and the IAEA go ahead and negotiate, when according to the Left there can be no deal ?

Clearly what the Left seems to be saying at this point is that in the interest of holding together the coalition government it may eventually go along the whole hog with the Congress on the nuclear deal with the US.

The reasons for the Left’s stance are quite obvious. One, it does not want to bring down the government. Traditionally its fear of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and other rightist parties have made it gloss over the flaws of the Congress party. Secondly, the Left’s opposition to the nuclear deal, and the underlying anti-American sentiment, has also not gone down well in the West. The Left, particularly in West Bengal, has been assiduously cultivating an image of being pro-business and investor friendly. So after the initial knee-jerk anti-American reflex, pragmatism has evidently got the better of the Left.

Even as the Left now finds it politically expedient to go along with the Congress on the nuclear deal, some of the substantial issues it raised against the 123 Agreement remain. These pertain to long-term national interests, and the Left cannot abandon them for its short-term political gains and for US investment in West Bengal.

As pointed out in an earlier blog, the Indo-US nuclear deal was flawed from the start.

I refer to “United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act” of 2006, which in fact forms the legal framework for the proposed 123 agreement, and was was devised to exempt a nuclear cooperation agreement with India from certain requirements of the Atomic Energy of 1954.

The Act does not however entirely protect India’s right to take decisions on its own on its non-civil nuclear program. It states for example that “a determination and any waiver under section 104 shall cease to be effective if the (US) President determines that India has detonated a nuclear explosive device after the date of the enactment of this title”. So if India detonates a device, the 123 Agreement goes up in smoke, and India will have to return nuclear fuel and other technology it obtained under the agreement.

So the 123 Agreement, in effect places limits on India’s ability to pursue a military nuclear program. When deciding to support the Agreement, the government and the communists should hence weigh the benefits for India’s civilian nuclear program against the risks for its military program. There may be no point in arguing that US supplies to India's civil program will free nuclear resources for use in the defense program, if the defense program is itself circumscribed by US rules.

That we take the right call on this becomes all the more important in the wake of instability and unpredictability in Pakistan, which has nuclear bombs, and also China’s own nuclear arsenal.

Related article:

The Indo-US nuclear deal was flawed from the start

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