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Fluff-and-bluff can’t change harsh truths

We may have all missed the most interesting point in the kerfuffle over the Indo-US nuclear deal. Dr Manmohan Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi have emerged as the greatest advertising team since World War II. They have sold a personal obsession as a nation’s lifeline. The strategy is not dissimilar to that employed by Germany and Italy in the war: repeat a lie often enough and it will be perceived as the truth. High-decibel propaganda has this hypnotic effect on the masses. To use a term from theatre, there is a wilful suspension of disbelief.

Take the promise of electricity to every village. The claim is arrant nonsense. The eight reactors the Government wants to purchase in the next four years — commissioning will be much later — will not increase the share of nuclear power in the energy mix beyond 2.5%. The Government’s own estimates show that even after two decades and an investment of perhaps $150 billion, nuclear energy capacity will not increase by more than three or four per cent. The same investment in other energy sources would provide a far higher return. Does Congress propaganda mention either the percentage or the time? Of course not.

A second lie: the Hyde Act has nothing to do with the deal, which will be governed only by the 123 Agreement. This is astonishing disinformation. America has repeatedly stated that it will not — indeed, legally, it cannot — deviate from the provisions of the Hyde Act, and America is the supplier nation. Our only role is to hand out hard currency for what America decides to sell.

On whose authority do I say this? On the basis of a letter Jeffrey Bergner, Assistant Secretary in the State Department, has written to Tom Lantos, then Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the House of Representatives. He answered 45 questions, clearing every potential doubt. There was no question of the fluff-and-bluff tactics used by Dr Manmohan Singh.

The third question asks: “Does the Administration believe that the nuclear cooperation agreement with India overrides the Hyde Act regarding any apparent conflicts, discrepancies, or inconsistencies? Does this include provisions in the Hyde Act which do not appear in the nuclear cooperation agreement?”

The answer is unambiguous: “In his September 19 statement, Assistant Secretary Boucher twice made clear that ‘we think [the proposed 123 Agreement with India] is in full conformity with the Hyde Act’. Indeed, the Administration is confident that the proposed agreement is consistent with the legal requirements of both the Hyde Act and the Atomic Energy Act… The agreement is also fully consistent with the legal requirements of the Hyde Act.”

The letter makes explicit much of what was left deliberately implicit in the 123 Agreement. The only defence mounted by Delhi was that there was “nothing new” in the Lantos letter. If there was nothing new, why was it kept a secret?

Perhaps US Ambassador to India David Mulford was right when he claimed that Delhi was fully aware of its content; maybe the Indian Prime Minister simply forgot to let us know. India is already in compliance with Hyde. This is why Delhi did not place an order for fuel from Russia or France after the NSG waiver. The Hyde Act prohibits any transaction without approval from the US Congress, which is yet to come.

The letter unravels the striptease of illusions carefully nurtured by Delhi. Paramount was the implication that the deal would give India access to the most sensitive nuclear technologies. Check out questions 4, 5, 6 and 7, on “dual-use items for use in sensitive nuclear facilities”, assistance to “India in the design, construction, or operation of sensitive nuclear technologies through the transfer of dual-use items outside the agreement” and whether US would adhere to the Hyde Act which discourages the spread of such technologies. Here are the answers: “…as a framework agreement it does not compel any such transfers, and as a matter of policy the United States does not transfer dual-use items for use in sensitive nuclear facilities … the US government will not assist India in the design, construction, or operation of sensitive nuclear technologies… The Administration does not plan to negotiate an amendment to the proposed US-India Agreement to transfer to India sensitive nuclear facilities or critical components of such facilities…”

Nothing new, is it? It seems we have a slightly castrated agreement.

There is insufficient space to quote the document in greater detail; suffice it to say that there is huge variance with the Indian perception on fuel supply, fallback safeguards and reprocessing rights.

America has absolute clarity on a fundamental issue that could cause much grief: India’s right to test. Delhi has hyperventilated that India’s right to test has been protected. The House asked Bush, in question 16: “Would any of these commitments continue to apply if India detonated a nuclear explosive device? If so, under what circumstances?”

Here is the reply: “As outlined in Article 14 of the 123 Agreement, should India detonate a nuclear explosive device, the United States has the right to cease all nuclear cooperation with India immediately, including the supply of fuel, as well as request the return of any items transferred from the United States, including fresh fuel.”

Please note: this ultimatum already exists in the 123 Agreement, which Delhi continues to sell as sacrosanct.

Dr Manmohan Singh has a dubious formulation on testing: India has the right to act, America has the right to react. But while India has nowhere included a clause claiming the right to act, America has specified what its reaction would be — extensive and expensive. Nor can India respond by ending invasive inspections. We have agreed to them in perpetuity.

A second public-relations ploy, to make this concession seem like a mere extension of the unilateral moratorium announced after our test in 1998, is disingenuous. A voluntary moratorium has become a multilateral commitment; the difference is critical. In 1998 America and the world could do very little, apart from cursory noises and sanctions that quickly withered on the bedrock of reality, precisely because our nuclear programme was totally indigenous, and there was no agreement through which punitive measures could be taken against India.

The propaganda offensive includes attaching labels on anyone who disagrees. Dissent is either “Islamist” [some of the language used by Government has been communal], “pro-Chinese” or “anti-progress”. Nationalism has become the sole preserve of the Government and its acolytes. This is silly.

A serious danger is the potential for misunderstanding with America, and the consequent damage to Indo-US relations. Pacts are always vulnerable to unforeseen circumstances. Bush has just frozen the 123 Agreement he signed with Russia because of differences over Georgia, a core Russian strategic interest. It is folly to sign an agreement vulnerable to circumstances that can easily be foreseen.

Advertising may be good politics, but national interest should be above politics.

About the author

M J Akbar

M.J. Akbar, Chairman and Director of Publications, Covert magazine, is a leading Indian journalist and author. He is founder and former editor-in-chief of The Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle. After successfully launching and establishing a weekly news magazine, Sunday, and a daily newspaper, The Telegraph, in the '70s and '80s, he briefly interrupted his career in journalism to enter politics in November 1989 as an elected representative in Parliament. He returned to writing and editing in 1993. His last book 'Blood Brothers', in the words of Khuswant Singh, "could be a textbook on how to write, mix fact, fiction and history. It is beautifully written; it deserves to be in Category A1." Commercially speaking M.J. Akbar is that tangible asset without whom the balance sheet of Indian Journalism will never tally!

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