Indo-US nuclear deal: achievement or mistake?

December 28, 2006 by  


By Nilofar Suhrawardy, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)

NEW DELHI — If in certain quarters the much-publicized Indo-US civilian nuclear deal has been hailed as a major “achievement,” in others it is being viewed as a “historic mistake.” Signing the India-US Peaceful Energy Act at a special White House ceremony last week (December 18), President George W. Bush hailed is an “important achievement for the world,” and said: “India will now operate its civilian nuclear program under internationally-accepted guidelines and the world is going to be safer as a result.”

Passed by the US Congress during the lame-duck session, the bill marking an amendment to 1954 US Atomic Energy Act will allow Washington to restore civilian nuclear relations with New Delhi (snapped after India conducted an atomic test in 1974). A separate 123 agreement between India and US will make the deal operational. India is also required to sign a safeguard agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and to secure the approval of the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to allow nuclear trade with India.

Back home, on the same day, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh acknowledged in parliament that there were still certain “areas of concern” in the deal, clarification of which would be sought from Washington. Dismissing opposition charges that the deal would make India a “client” of the US, Singh asserted that “nuclear swaraj” (independence) would be maintained. It would not “dilute, compromise or cast any shadow” on the independence of the country’s foreign policy, he said. There was no reason for opposition leader L.K. Advani (Bharatiya Janata Party-BJP) to “worry about India losing its nuclear swaraj,” Singh said.

While Congress leaders have hailed the passing of the US legislation as an end of 30 years of Indian nuclear isolation, opponents, suspecting US “interests,” have criticized it strongly. Demanding rejection of the deal, Advani had said that it would push India into the “dangerous trap of self-enslavement.” “India cannot accept to become a client state of the US. Yet this is precisely the status the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government wants for India, courtesy the nuclear deal,” he said.

With legislators belonging to BJP as well as external supporters of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government remaining unconvinced by PM Singh’s assurances, they continued their attacks till the last day of the winter session (December 19). BJP leader Arun Shourie told the Rajya Sabha that through the agreement, the US aimed to “halt, rollback and eliminate” India’s nuclear capability. Lashing out at the government, Shourie also said the new deal would place as many as 14 reactors under safeguards. “The five nuclear weapon states together have 237 reactors, but only 11 of them are under safeguards,” Shourie said.

Voicing doubts about the civil nuclear deal’s accordance with the commitment made by the Prime Minister on August 17, Shahid Siddiqui (Samajwadi Party) said: “Bring this Act in the House. Parliament will see if it is in accordance with the Prime Minister’s commitment.”

The same point was earlier expressed by Sitaram Yechury (Communist Party of India-Marxist): “We are apprehensive about the prime minister’s assurances being incorporated in the deal.” PM Singh’s “assertions are untenable as George Bush is bound by the legislation passed by the US Congress,” he said. Asserting that they did not suspect the Indian government’s position by opposing the deal, Gurudas Dasgupta (Communist Party of India) said: “We suspect the bonafide of the US administration’s intent in view of its past record on many issues.”

In the US, the deal has been favored by sections keen on further strengthening India-US relations. “It marks a defining moment in the US-India relations, reminiscent of Nixon’s opening to China … We are now witnessing this change in US law that finally ends three decades of technology denial against India,” US-India Business Council President Ron Somers said.

Edward Markey (D-MA-7th), however, described the new legislation as a “historic mistake” that “may well become the death warrant to the international nuclear non-proliferation regime” and spur an arms race in South Asia.

Supporting the deal, outgoing Republican Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Dick Lugar said: “By concluding this pact and the far-reaching set of cooperative agreements that accompany it, the president has embraced a long-term outlook that seeks to enhance the core strength of our foreign policy in a way that will give us new diplomatic options and improve global stability.”

While the deal is likely to face criticism as well as some praise in India and US for perhaps months to come, the two countries’ leaders seem unaffected at present and satisfied by their reaching this stage.

During a phone conversation of December 21, they both expressed happiness at the strengthening of bilateral relations “highlighted in President Bush’s initiative to amend US laws to enable bilateral civil nuclear cooperation, which received strong bipartisan support in the United States Congress,” according to a statement from Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Regarding India’s concerns, voiced by Singh, Bush expressed the hope that these would be addressed in the next stage of negotiations.

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