Civilian nuclear deal: A victim of oversell (Commentary)

June 23rd, 2008 - 9:38 am ICT by IANS  

A file-photo of Manmohan Singh
By Sreeram Sundar Chaulia
With scant light at the end of the tunnel for the India-US civilian nuclear deal, it is evident that the agreement is a victim of oversell as a “historic” accord to emancipate India’s economy and international status. The Manmohan Singh government’s claims in favour of the 123 Agreement were so bombastic as to project it as an elixir that could transform India’s destiny. After inflating the benefits of the deal, the prime minister is now facing the music from both the right and left flanks of the political spectrum. The centrepiece argument made by the Indian government on behalf of the nuclear deal is that it would usher in a bright new era of nuclear power generation and motor India’s economic growth. The factual basis of this assertion is dubious. Nuclear power currently contributes to barely three percent of India’s overall energy production and is expected to reach nine percent only by 2016, provided deals with Washington and the rest of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) go through.

The accretion to India’s energy security from importing nuclear fuel and technology, taking costs of procurement into consideration, will thus be only marginal. By painting a much rosier picture, the Indian government raised the antlers of its detractors who did everything to prevent the ruling party from getting plaudits for revolutionising India’s economic development.

In competitive electoral politics, no ruling party will obtain cooperation from the opposition for a deal that the former wants to advertise as its unique achievement. This is, in essence, the reason why the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) opposes the civil nuclear agreement - to obstruct its rival from taking credit. Such thinking is revealed through comments of BJP leaders that they are interested in renegotiating the deal if they come to power.

On the question of the deal being an impediment to nuclear weapons testing by India, a concern the BJP shares with some national security elites, the Manmohan Singh government is again guilty of exaggerating the leverage India enjoys. Strategic experts who have pored over the contents of the 123 Agreement and the Hyde Act have drawn valid conclusions that the US is most likely to terminate the agreement if India breaks its moratorium on bomb tests.

The Congress party responded with non-transparent assurances that there is no link between capping India’s quest for a credible minimum deterrent and the deal. A more sensible strategy should have been to argue, in private, in a ’so what’ vein. So what if the US and the NSG turn off their taps for nuclear fuel and technology when India is strategically compelled to conduct more bomb tests?

Supposing Chinese and Pakistani nuclear brinkmanship forced India to test more weapons in 2010 or 2013, the ensuing probable loss of civilian nuclear fuel from the US and the NSG would not dent the Indian economy. To reiterate, the addition to India’s energy security from the deal is marginal, not substantial. India’s citizens and industrial entrepreneurs have made enormous sacrifices for the security of the country in the past, and they would certainly not gainsay future nuclear tests by harping on forfeiture of a few thousand megawatts of electricity.

Moreover, India’s current nuclear power plants are running at approximately half capacity due to acute shortage of uranium. Whatever fuel and technology India would have received in the short to medium term from the US and the NSG would be utilised to first make the existing nuclear power plants fully operational. There should be no fear of sunk costs in expensive overheads for new nuclear power plants that would have gone down the drain if the US and the NSG withdrew their supplies in retaliation to a bomb test.

A corollary case could have been made that opportunistically receiving nuclear fuel and technology from the US and the NSG for a few years would bring marginal advantages to the country’s indigenous fast breeder reactor programme based on domestically available thorium. Stalwarts of the atomic science establishment, M.R. Srinivasan and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, declare that “an adequate programme of first generation nuclear reactors using natural or enriched uranium is an inescapable technological necessity to launch a substantial programme of thorium utilisation”.

Even a temporary agreement with the US and the NSG could have propelled India’s thorium-based nuclear research forward to a point that withdrawal of nuclear fuel in the future would have minimal impact on the scientific community’s research. Unfortunately, by elevating the economic upside of the deal to sky high proportions, the Manmohan Singh government could not resort to this simple scenario planning that could have pacified minimum deterrence proponents.

As to the Left’s contention that the 123 Agreement will convert India into a lapdog of the US, the Manmohan Singh government could have countered by applying for full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) led by Russia and China. India’s entry into SCO could be framed in the rubric of energy security rather than as anti-US posturing. The very presence of Russia in the SCO would have mitigated the indignity of India playing second fiddle to China.

The Indian government’s lame defence that the 123 Agreement would open doors to Russia and France via the NSG missed the larger Left grievance that the problem is not with the specifics of the nuclear deal per se but with its global diplomatic implications. The Communist charge of alignment in a “new Cold War” should have been allayed through the route of the SCO instead of wallowing in the rigmarole of the NSG.

History is laden with roads not taken. Had the Manmohan Singh government been less boastful of the manna that the 123 Agreement would bestow and bolder in diplomacy, it would not be staring down the abyss today.

(Sreeram Chaulia is a researcher on international affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship in Syracuse, New York. He can be contacted at

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