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India’s nuclear hawks peddle great power delusions over the NSG waiver

by Praful Bidwai, 24 September 2008

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Frontline, September 27 - October 10, 2008

Nationalist euphoria over the NSG waiver will breed monumental arrogance, great-power delusions, and contempt for peace among our social-Darwinist elite.

THE headlines reporting the waiver granted to India by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) from its nuclear trade rules could not have been more breathless or gung-ho – to the point of hysteria: “Nuclear apartheid ends”, “Nuclear dawn”, “India N-abled”, and so on. Even more excessive were the television and newspaper comments that followed.

This was India’s Moment of Triumph, its arrival on the world stage as The Sixth Power, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s “Second Revolution” (the first being the 1991 neoliberal policy), as well as the world’s acceptance of India’s indispensability as a fully-paid member of the cabal that sits at its High Table.

Why else would the major powers, which set up the NSG in response to the Indian nuclear test of 1974, now bend over backwards to legitimise India’s nuclear weapons and agree to resume nuclear trade with it by granting it the “clean and unconditional waiver” it wanted? Why should they accommodate India into the world’s apex power structure unless they genuinely respect its strategic importance, its burgeoning economy, its “unimpeachable” non-proliferation record, its robust democracy, and growing status as a “knowledge-based” society, much like the United States?

For supporters of the waiver, and more generally, of the U.S.-India nuclear deal, a major point to celebrate was that India did not merely win a moral victory at Vienna. It played the power game, ruthlessly and consummately, and demonstrated it does not lack “the killer instinct”, which does not come easily to this “non-violent and peace-loving” land. India must now savour this power and its exercise – in a word, flex its muscle and make the transition to Great Powerdom that it has shied from making.

The NSG waiver was going to be an uphill task. It did not go through at first shot, on August 21-22, because as many as 20-odd of the NSG’s 45 member-states moved more than 50 amendments to the U.S.-drafted resolution. Besides, a “like-minded” group of six states – Austria, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Switzerland – crystallised, which led the opposition. The group was cautious and stressed that it was all in favour of the waiver but wanted to weave it in with the NSG’s all-important non-proliferation objectives.

The U.S. and India jointly managed to break the solidarity of the “like-minded”. The U.S. used crude, raw power, thuggish tactics (what else is ‘strong arming’?), and all manner of threats. The pressure it exercised was described as “brutal and unconscionable” by former United Nations Disarmament Undersecretary Jayantha Dhanapala. Regrettably, India too used ‘with-us-or-against-us’ threats – in a sharp, shameful departure from its normal diplomatic approaches based on reasoning and invocation of universal principles.

On September 5, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee issued a statement saying that India had always believed in nuclear disarmament, and opposed proliferation and an arms race. This, it was claimed, brought about a change of heart among the dissenting six and others, eventually ensuring the victory of ‘sweet reason’.

Pranab Mukherjee’s statement does not square up with India’s record in initiating and sustaining a nuclear race in South Asia for three decades. Nor did he offer the much-sought legally binding commitment not to test. He only reiterated India’s unilateral moratorium, which can be lifted easily and unilaterally. The plain truth is that the waiver was not a victory for India based on a shared commitment with the NSG to nuclear arms control, restraint and non-proliferation. It was a triumph of crass realpolitik, based on bribery, muscle power and coercion.

Pranab Mukherjee’s statement, however, offered an opportunity to many NSG member-states, including Japan and Germany, to enter reservations in the form of “national statements”. They interpreted it to mean that nuclear cooperation with India would cease in case India tested. According to reports, there was also an informal understanding amongst many NSG members that they would not transfer “sensitive” technologies such as uranium enrichment and spent-fuel reprocessing to India.

Is the waiver, then, “clean and unconditional”, as India all along insisted? Strictly speaking, no. India formally accepted only one of the three conditions proposed by NSG dissenters: periodic review of compliance with its non-proliferation commitments. But the other two conditions – exclusion of enrichment and reprocessing from nuclear trade, and terminating trade in the event of testing – were inserted into the “national statements”.

Since then, some of the euphoria over the waiver has been dampened by the realisation that it was not quite unconditional, and that the U.S. is stalling over honouring the commitments made in the 123 Agreement, which it says are only “political” and not legally binding. Whether this is only a tactic to sweeten the 123 Agreement for the consumption of the U.S. Congress before it ratifies it, or a line drawn in stone, will soon become clear.

However, another media campaign has now broken out, which insinuates that the George W. Bush administration was never entirely serious or unanimous about pushing the deal through on the terms agreed with India, and that a certain “non-proliferation lobby” or “the non-proliferation underground” has been active in ensuring that the Hyde Act prevails over the 123 Agreement as far as Congress goes. This has the potential of nullifying a substantial part of the deal, one which concerns the leading power that took the initiative in proposing it and piloting it through numerous fora.

Yet, none of this is likely to temper the irrational exuberance of the powerful pro-deal lobby, which sees the waiver as a sign of India’s triumph and rectification of a historic wrong via the lifting of “unfair” sanctions through which “innocent India” was punished for conducting the 1974 test. But contrary to received wisdom, rather propaganda, India did not conduct the test by using “indigenously developed” materials or self-reliant technologies.

The critical materials were imported or illegitimately procured. The plutonium for the test came from the CIRUS reactor built with Canadian-U.S. assistance, which was only meant for “peaceful purposes”. Hence, the hypocritical “peaceful nuclear explosion” description. In reality, India had cheated the world by diverting civilian material to military use – thus becoming a proliferator.

Unfortunately, the NSG made a dangerous distinction between “good” and “bad” proliferators and rewarded India for being Washington’s friend. Tomorrow, another country could exploit the same distinction. This will undermine the global non-proliferation norm. What of the claim that the deal will bring India into the global “non-proliferation mainstream”? The deal will do nothing of the sort. It will allow India to produce more bomb-grade material. Under it, India will separate military-nuclear facilities from civilian ones.

However, India will only put 14 of its 22 operating/planned civilian reactors under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. It can use the remaining eight to produce weapons-grade plutonium – estimated as enough for 40 Nagasaki-type bombs annually. India can produce additional bomb-fuel from military-nuclear facilities and fast-breeders.

This makes nonsense of India’s professed “credible minimum deterrent”, understood as a few dozen weapons. (How many bombs would it take to flatten five Chinese or Pakistani cities? 15, 20, 50?) India already has an estimated 100 to 150. Adding to them will accelerate the vicious nuclear arms race with Pakistan, and more ominously, with China. Yet, the mainstream Indian nuclear debate reflects none of these anomalies, hypocrisies and contradictions.

The nuclear hawks are jubilant that even if the 123 Agreement is not quickly ratified by the U.S. Congress, the NSG waiver will remain a major achievement – and a tribute to India’s rising power in the world. It effectively allows India not only to keep its nuclear weapons, but to expand its atomic arsenal although it is not a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – the only state to have that privilege.

This mindless celebration of power, that too of power based on mass-destruction capabilities, represents a serious retrogression from the ethical and political imperative of a nuclear weapons-free world. It is profoundly tragic and deplorable that within this framework, India’s growing power is separated from its larger, global and universal, purposes. It is not the kind of power that can be used to make the world a better place, only to threaten non-combatant civilians with mass annihilation.

It is not a sign of policymakers and shapers in a responsible rising power that they should be oblivious to the consequences of a narrow, parochial decision that helps their weapons arsenal but harms the world. Quite simply, the Indian elite has erased its own memory. Nuclear weapons are nothing to be proud of. They are an unmitigated evil and must be eliminated. So greatly is it in the thrall of social Darwinism that it has come to believe that nuclear weapons give security, prestige, real power and even respect. This is reflected in the mainstream nuclear debate, too, where the dimension of peace and disarmament has been absent – unlike after the 1998 tests.

The sad truth is that by making the peace dimension disappear from public discourse, the United Progressive Alliance has achieved what the far more right-wing National Democratic Alliance could not.