NDA should rise above parochial concerns on nuclear issue

April 9th, 2008 - 11:04 am ICT by admin  

A file-photo of Manmohan Singh
By K. Subrahmanyam
The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is justifiably very proud of conducting the Shakti tests and declaring India a nuclear weapon power. It was so possessive of this claim for quite some time after the tests that the NDA leadership was reluctant to give the credit for having developed the nuclear weapons to the Congress prime ministers Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao. In an obituary tribute to Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee revealed that Narasimha Rao urged him to conduct the tests. Presumably Narasimha Rao did not look at India’s nuclear status from a partisan point of view and he did not mind the NDA and Vajpayee getting all the credit.

It is often said by NDA people that Manmohan Singh was anti-nuclear when he was a member of the Atomic Energy Commission and he was not enthusiastic about the Shakti tests as leader of the opposition.

Yet Narasimha Rao told me, George Verghese and a few others during our Kargil Committee interview that he had clearly instructed Manmohan Singh as finance minister to make all necessary funds available to operationalise the nuclear arsenal. That was one of the reasons why the funding for conventional defence was restricted in those yeas.

Manmohan Singh as prime minister rectified the impression created by his foreign minister that the nuclear test was a mistake and said that history had to be taken into account. The present government has stood by the Indian strategic programme as formulated by the NDA government after the Shakti tests and declaration of India as a nuclear weapon state.

The nuclear weapons programme was conceived of and nurtured by Indira Gandhi. Though Rajiv Gandhi was a strong supporter of nuclear disarmament, he did not hesitate to launch the weapons programme when he found that the Indian national security interests demanded India’s developing weapons .

Narasimha Rao operationalised the arsenal. The NDA government declared India a weapon state and it was a beneficiary of the policies pursued by the Congress prime ministers in secret in the national interest. That secrecy caused a lot of confusion among Congressmen and many of them opposed the Shakti tests without understanding the Indira-Rajiv-Narasimha Rao strategy.

Today it appears that the NDA is about to commit the same mistake as many Congressmen did following the Shakti tests because of the secrecy of the former NDA leadership.

The country is facing a serious uranium crunch and without India signing the 123 agreement with the US and liberating itself from technology denial regimes, Indian civil nuclear energy programme and Homi J. Bhabha’s dreams of a third stage thorium bred U-233 reactor programme will all grind to a halt. This is the message given by M.R. Srinivasan, the reactor engineer and former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission.

In an article in The Indian Express on March 28, 2008, he has sounded the dire warning that without 50,000 MW of nuclear power producing plutonium the country cannot sustain a fast breeder programme which will convert thorium into U-233 for the third stage reactors envisaged by Bhabha.

The country has only uranium to sustain a programme of 10,000 MW unless India signs the 123 agreement and is able to import foreign reactors and uranium.

Though the Congress prime ministers professed their commitment to nuclear disarmament they were prepared to develop nuclear weapons when the national security interests demanded it.

Now a similar question is facing the NDA leadership. Will the alliance leaders, in spite of their hitherto opposition to the 123 agreement, now change their stand in the national interest and to preserve India’s nuclear future and its role in global nuclear arena? The present NDA leadership should understand, as many Congress leaders came to realise after the Shakti tests, that except with the topmost few the nuclear secrets were not shared by prime ministers: whether they belonged to the Congress or the BJP.

The Congress foreign ministers were not the most knowledgeable on the nuclear issue before the Shakti tests. Pranab Mukherjee is an exception because he has been given the responsibility to negotiate the issue.

The NDA prime minister was aware of the uranium crunch and therefore launched the initiative for the Next Steps in the Strategic Partnership (NSSP) as the first step to incorporate India into the international non-proliferation regime but not into the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

One finds that some NDA leaders are not able to distinguish between the non-proliferation regime, against which India has no complaint, and the NPT, which is against India having nuclear weapons. Neither the NDA prime minister nor the UPA prime minister could publicise to the world our situation and thereby weaken our bargaining position at a crucial stage.

Now our reactors are functioning at 50 percent of their capacity - down from 90 percent in 2003 - and will continue to function at such low capacity for the next five years. Our uranium ore is of very poor quality and our scientists have done a remarkable job using such low-grade ore.

Is the NDA by opposing the 123 agreement going to contribute to winding down our nuclear future? Or will it rise above parochial concerns and help to sustain our national security interests? No Hyde Act can ever come in the way of India exercising its sovereignty in future as the US Atomic Energy Act of 1954 could not, either in 1974 or in 1998.

Even to consider that a foreign domestic act will bind us is to display a poorer understanding of the concept of sovereignty than the Chinese and Pakistanis have displayed in respect of country-specific enactments by the US Congress with reference to their countries.

The anti-nuclear parties - the Left - will be happy if the Indian nuclear programme is wound up. Surely the NDA is not anti-nuclear. Will the NDA leadership consult the nuclear scientists - Srinivasan, Chidambaram and Kakodkar, former foreign secretaries and ex-ambassadors to the US and former chiefs of staff of the armed forces - to arrive at a realistic assessment of our nuclear situation before they decide to continue their opposition to the 123 agreement beyond the term of President George W. Bush? Many of them had served with distinction during NDA regime.

At the same time it must be admitted the UPA’s reluctance to deal directly with the NDA on this issue of vital national security interest reminds one of the NDA’s reluctance to give credit to the Congress prime ministers for the Shakti tests. Such partisan politics is bound to take a heavy toll of our national interests and security.

(K. Subrahmanyam is India’s pre-eminent analyst on strategic and international affairs. He can be contacted at ksubrahmanyam51@gmail.com)

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