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How India's Nuclear "Waiver" Was Won

How India's Nuclear "Waiver" Was Won


by J. Sri Raman,
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

According to India's National Security Adviser, M. K. Narayanan, the country won a waiver of the normal, non-proliferation conditions of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) over the weekend - believe it or not - because of "divine support."

Evidence, however, points to a superpower and its outgoing president as the source of the extra-diplomatic support that enabled India to take this penultimate step toward "operationalizing" the US-India nuclear deal. The final step will be formal ratification by the US Congress of the bilateral agreement on nuclear cooperation, which New Delhi and Washington concluded in July 2007.

Narayanan told a television channel that he was in his "puja (prayer) room" at 1 a.m. when his colleague and Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon phoned him to share his anxiety over the fate of the deal in the crucial session of the 45-member NSG in Vienna. The spiritual-minded security counselor stayed unruffled. He told Menon that he had received an assurance in the matter from "the highest quarters."

Those with a different idea of divinity might demur. The waiver has caused such wild jubilation in Indian circles, which consider a pro-peace stance as the opposite of patriotism, precisely because it has been won without the country renouncing its legal right to conduct a nuclear-weapon test again. And, if India tests again, it will do so only in order to make bigger and better bombs. To some of us, divine intervention to help a worshiper acquire more mass-destructive weapons might seem an improbable idea.

None of us, however, would consider as anything but natural pro-India intervention for the same purpose by Washington under George W. Bush - despite the war it launched on Iraq for finding weapons of mass destruction that have proven fictitious. Reports from Vienna confirm that the intervention has not been of a refined, traditionally diplomatic kind either.

Many analysts have already noted the irony of the fact that the NSG, set up in 1975 as a response to India's first and professedly "peaceful nuclear explosion" of the previous year, has lifted the ban on nuclear commerce for the country within a decade of its declaration as a nuclear-weapon state. The other irony of the US, which has given the NSG its clout all these years, taking the lead in weakening it with the waiver has also drawn attention.

To some, the more striking irony is of the privileged signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) - the P5 comprising the US, Russia, the UK, France and China - themselves presiding over the liquidation of the treaty. All five are members of the NSG, which has extended the waiver to India, a non-signatory to the NPT. To some others, the supreme irony may seem to be the one about the discriminatory and hypocritical treaty being glorified as a global non-proliferation guide and depicting the P5 as harbingers of nuclear disarmament.

Opposition to the waiver, however, was expected only from other NSG members. The US had undertaken to assist India in this forum. Nicholas Burns, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, had said on August 4, 2007, that Washington would act as "India's shepherd" at the NSG. It was as good as its word, going by the way it herded a handful of reluctant members into the pro-deal pen.

The official text of the waiver is not available at the moment this writing. It is, nevertheless, clear that the NSG has been persuaded to grant the waiver on the "basis" of a statement made by India's External Affairs Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, in New Delhi, reiterating a "voluntary moratorium" on testing declared soon after the nuclear-weapon tests of 1998. Similarly, no details of the US diplomacy in the NSG have been divulged, but no doubt is left about its unusual character.

The US and India had to deal, finally, with six holdouts - Austria, Ireland, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland. The first three fell in line after an initial show of resistance, but the others seemed to stand firm until the night of September 5. They demanded a linkage between the waiver and an Indian commitment not to test again, among other conditions. China, too, joined the dissenters toward the end. Midnight diplomacy of a muscular kind, however, made all the difference and manufactured the waiver of September 6, by all accounts.

Jayantha Dhanapala, the eminent Sri Lankan who served as the UN undersecretary general in 1998-2003, talked of this tough diplomacy in his last-minute appeal to the dissenters to stay firm. He said: "Brutal and unconscionable pressure has been exerted on the few countries who opposed the US-India draft...."

A report in a leading Indian newspaper said "dozens of phone calls" were made "at the highest levels Thursday and Friday (September 5) night to various principals across the world to get the deal through." At the receiving end were Chinese President Hu Jintao and leaders of Ireland, Austria and New Zealand. "At the highest levels," clarified the report, was "a euphemism for President Bush, whose single-minded pursuit of this deal was largely instrumental in getting it through in the waning days of his second term."

The account was not too ambiguous about the character of the calls and the campaign. It said: "Not that Uncle Sam was delicate in the pursuit of its objective. In fact, the word out of Vienna is that US strong-arm tactics left plenty of bruised feelings." Another Indian daily quoted a Western diplomat as complaining that his country and others had been "leaned on at the highest levels." According to the same paper, it needed a series of "fairly real-time demarches" by Washington to ensure withdrawal of objections to the draft waiver.

"For the first time in my experience of international diplomatic negotiations, a consensus decision was followed by complete silence in the room. No clapping, nothing," one European diplomat confided to a news agency. "It showed a lot of us felt pressured to some extent into a decision by the Americans and few were totally satisfied."

The dominant Indian media, representing a dreamy-eyed middle class as well as demented nuclear militarists, were delighted. Sample this from a brazen editorial (captioned "Savor the change") in the Indian Express, which has always batted for Bush and the bomb: "India should have no illusions that it was sweet reason - for example, the argument that India has "impeccable" non-proliferation credentials - that ultimately silenced New Delhi's opponents in the NSG. It was Washington's brutal exercise of power that forced the recalcitrant members of the NSG, including China, to stand down."

The editorial added: "As it reflects on the NSG experience, Indian diplomacy should lose no more time in moving decisively from its traditional emphasis on the power of the argument to the more effective argument of power." The waiver, in other words, reinforced the argument for the US-India "strategic partnership" that promoted this country as a regional power, besides promising it at least a secondary place in the "nuclear club" and the UN Security Council.

The waiver did not come without earlier indications. As far back as August 13, 2007, we noted in these columns (Nuclear Suppliers Drop Opposition to US-India Deal) the readiness of two significant NPT signatories to renege on their avowed commitment. Germany's ambassador in India, Bernd Muetzelberg, then announced that his country would try to "forge a consensus" within the group on the deal and in favor of it. He said: "It's not an easy task (to forge a consensus) given India's consistent refusal to join the NPT regime. But we also understand India's security situation in which it has to operate." Around the same time, the Australian government, under Prime Minister John Howard, too, promised to consider "the potential sale of Australian uranium to India fairly soon."

Germany chaired the NSG session this time and, according to one critic, "sat on its thumbs," giving the US time and opportunity through repeated adjournments for its waiver-pushing diplomacy. After Kevin Rudd of the Labor Party replaced Howard as Australia's prime minister in November 2007, his government ruled out sale of uranium to India. Last month, however, Rudd surprised his supporters by announcing his backing for New Delhi in the NSG. It is not only the stick that has won India the waiver, but also the carrot, especially for the corporates. France and Russia have made no secret of the fact that they have been waiting in the wings for the waiver, which would open the doors to lucrative nuclear trade for them, regardless of what happens in the US Congress. Even before the finalization of the US-India bilateral agreement last year, a former chairman of India's Atomic Energy Commission said: "French and American nuclear businesses, holding talks with Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), could go ahead with the selection of sites for power plants and other modalities."

As noted before, expert projections made in December 2006 envisage an increase in India's nuclear arsenal by 40 to 50 weapons a year as a result of the deal. The country is also expected to acquire 40 nuclear reactors over the next two decades or so. India has announced plans to expand its current installed nuclear-energy capacity from 3,500 megawatts to 60,000 megawatts by 2040. The expansion is valued at $150 billion. All this offers mouth-watering prospects for megaplayers in the world nuclear industry.

Indian corporate houses are no less excited. According to one report, the "end of India's nuclear isolation" will pave the way for a minimum investment of Indian rupees 840 billion ($18.9 billion) in nuclear power generation capacity in the near future. This, suggest other reports, may be an underestimate. The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham) did not wait long after the waiver to announce that about 40 Indian firms are in talks with companies abroad to set up power plants, envisaging an investment of about Indian rupees 2,000 billion ($165.5 billion) over 15 years. The US-India agreement cannot realistically be expected to encounter insuperable opposition in the Congress, though the anti-nuclear movement will certainly mount an offensive against the ratification. Bipartisan support for the agreement, once considered beyond the realm of possibility, did come through in time for the treaty's finalization. The welcome extended to the waiver by both John McCain and Barack Obama is more than a straw in the wind.

In India, the left has vowed to terminate the deal after the general election due in early 2009. The far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which initiated the US-India "strategic partnership," talks of renegotiating the deal once it returns to power. Neither of the threats is receiving wide and serious attention, even as nuclear militarists and their media call for a national celebration of the victory in Vienna.

*************

A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. Sri Raman is the author of "Flashpoint" (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.

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