Sunday, March 05, 2006

Separate Deal

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar:Separate Deal

Trouble is, ma-in-law ain’t approved of history yet. Arms-wide-open George Bush and simple-but-hardly-simplistic Manmohan Singh summoned history to witness their alliance. "We have made history today, and I thank you," Dr Singh told his guest in Delhi. Very coy, very nice. But it isn’t legal yet. Marriage awaits mother-in-law’s approval.

Mother-in-law is the Congress of the United States. She is particularly watchful about errant sons who declare victory before she has checked the fine print.

Once upon a time, long long ago, a President of the United States of America offered the President of Pakistan a whole bunch of F-16s, and even collected cash on the deal. Pakistan is still waiting to put those fighters to some historic use.

I don’t want to be a party-pooper at a particularly cosy love-fest, but here are a couple of quotes printed in the March 3 edition of ma-in-law’s favourite newspaper, the Washington Post. Republican Ed Royce, chair of the International Relations Subcommittee on International Terrorism and Proliferation, thought the Delhi deal had "implications beyond US-India relations" and that the "goal of curbing nuclear proliferation should be paramount." Democrat Edward Markey, co-chair of the Bipartisan Task Force on Non-proliferation, called the agreement "a historic failure of this President to tackle the real nuclear threats we face".

When ma-in-law talks from the side of her face she can be a tough old bird.

If history is made, then it will be certainly made in one respect: it will be the first time that India will sign an international protocol that has implications for its nuclear programme and nuclear military assets. A series of Prime Ministers, cutting across party lines, has resisted the most serious pressure to sign on any dotted line. The potential to build a nuclear weapon was created by Jawaharlal Nehru; the ability to build it was confirmed by Indira Gandhi; the decision to go public was made by Atal Behari Vajpayee. The one thing they, and others in between, knew was that any signature became a commitment that might fetch flexibility in the present but could become a prison in the future.

Since this is the first agreement that India might have to sign, unless the American legislatures sabotage it or the present government in Delhi makes way for a more sceptical successor, I hope those who have drafted it have read every line, checked the top line, bottom line, underline and then checked the little comma hidden in the fine print that discusses the separation of 14 civilian nuclear plants from eight military ones.

This is a marriage built on separation, in more senses than one.

The two constituencies, Delhi and Washington, are offering distinctively separate narratives.

Here, in sum, is what the spokesmen of Dr Manmohan Singh will be telling us as they take their message to the country:

This agreement will permit India to produce fissile materials for its nuclear military needs, despite the fact that the recognised nuclear powers have halted, voluntarily, such production.

The fast-breeder reactors, which can make super-grade plutonium when fully operational, will not be under international inspection or safeguards.

India can now hope to make up to 50 nuclear weapons a year, for the availability of imported uranium frees local supplies for use in military reactors.

India gets the latest technology long denied to its scientists.

Listen to the narrative on the American side, some of which has already begun to be articulated, even by the extremely sophisticated and persuasive American negotiator, Nicholas Burns.

India enters the inspection regime, a far better situation than the zero-influence that existed so far. (It needs to be pointed out, of course, that India rose from drawing board to major nuclear power, without indulging in theft, only because of this zero-influence, a status that the Manmohan Singh government is in the process of bartering away.)

The fast-breeder reactors that India possesses will be isolated, and unable to get new technology, thanks to the inspections regime, ensuring, over time, stagnation or decline. Implication: India has been sold a lemon thanks to a gullible government.

The deal brings India into the American zone of influence, and turns it into a virtual ally with a potential for assistance in American strategic interests (that is code word for American intervention). India’s conventional arms programme now shifts dramatically into the supply chain of the American industrial-military complex. If the Indo-Soviet treaty kept India within the Soviet camp till the Soviet Union collapsed, then this agreement will keep India in the American parlour for the foreseeable future.

There is a great bonanza to American industry of arms sales (this will be the most persuasive argument in the Senate, because the one thing a legislator does not want to be accused of is preventing jobs). The starting figure, according to Pentagon officials who admittedly have not dealt with Indian bureaucrats so far, is nine billion dollars. That is a lot of dollars. Keep counting, Senator!

There is no political quid pro quo. The Soviet Union intervened when necessary to protect India’s position on issues like Jammu and Kashmir with a veto in the Security Council. America has given no such commitment. Indeed, Delhi’s leverage with Moscow is reduced with the shift in arms purchases. China will never support India over Pakistan in the Security Council and the West will have the pleasure of balancing Pakistan’s interests with India’s on issues like Kashmir.

With time, the narrative in Washington will doubtless take on other hues, since emerging questions will demand creative answers if the agreement is to be pushed through the Congress. Senator John Kerry publicly worried about fissile material during a visit to Delhi. Others are wondering whether such a reward for a nation that has not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is not a signal for others to risk going nuclear. And then of course there is the weight of Pakistan’s pressure to which there may not be any immediate give, but which will make its play in the coming months. Pakistan remains a frontline state in Bush’s war on terror.

Such voices may not be consistent, or even necessarily logical, but they will demand to be heard. Some will pick up claims made in Delhi and ask the Bush administration for clarifications, as for instance on the delicate matter of how many nuclear weapons India is capable of making.

If Pakistan is truly lucky, it will have the extraordinary good fortune of escaping the Bush embrace. The indications are that Bush will not offer the terms of the deal with India to Pakistan. What does this mean?

It means, first, that while India will sign a limiting commitment on its nuclear programme, Pakistan will sign nothing. Pakistan can, therefore, be held down to nothing. Bush is going to be in power for only another two years, and that as a terribly lame duck. His approval ratings are below freezing point, and his own party is distancing itself from him, raising the question as to whether he has the political capital to push anything through Congress.

What are Pakistan’s options? Pakistan’s nuclear programme has been created with China’s help. China may not have technology as good as America’s, but it isn’t a junkyard either. As a friend, China will be much more reliable than America. This is not because of any character defect. America is a democracy, and therefore always vulnerable to democratic discourse. China is a dictatorship.

China, most crucially, will not be propelled by mere goodwill or friendship; its policy will hinge on self-interest. Since a critical rationale for the Bush shift is to help India become a counterweight to China, Beijing will respond by playing the Pakistan card against India. China has already assured Pakistan three more nuclear reactors, and you never hear of any fuel shortage problems in Islamabad. President Pervez Musharraf has gone on record to say that Pakistan has its options. Is this what he meant?

We may never know what the complete truth is. But keep your ears open when the mother-in-law starts asking questions on Capitol Hill in Washington.

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