The Indo-US Nuclear Deal: The PM’s Rajya Sabha Statement

IT is a matter of great significance that not only has the parliament discussed the Indo-US Nuclear Deal, it has also drawn the line of what is acceptable to the country and what is not in the two versions of the Bill now going through the US Congress. If we take the PM’s reply to the debate as conveying the sense of the House, then we need to note “I had taken up with president Bush our concerns regarding provisions in the two Bills. It is clear that if the final product is in its current form, India will have grave difficulties in accepting these Bills.” This lays down in the parliament that the Indian government will walk away from the Indo-US Nuclear Deal if it continues in its current form. Having said this, we also need to be vigilant that the government sticks to these boundaries laid down in the PM’s speech.

While it is right that Indian parliament functions on a different set of principles than the US Congress, the fact remains that on matters as vital to the nation as the Indo-US Nuclear Deal, the parliament also needs to have a consensus. The issue is not only one of formal powers of the executive and the parliament. The process of making such treaties has generally been treated in a way that imposes on the parliament a fait accompli. Let us take, for instance, the WTO agreement. The executive signed it without a consensus in the parliament. And yet, the result of such a treaty was changes to Indian legislation including the Indian Patents Act. Therefore, it is a healthy precedent that on matters that bind the country for the future, we try and evolve a national consensus. It is for this reason that the Left has suggested that all treaties need to be ratified by the parliament.

It is the pressure of the Left and other voices in the country that we now have a position in the Indian parliament that if the current version of the Bills deviate significantly from the provisions of the July, 2005 Agreement and the Separation Plan of March, 2006, they would not acceptable to the Indian people. The PM stated in Rajya Sabha that India will “draw appropriate conclusions” if the boundaries of the July Agreement are crossed.


 While the PM has stated that India will not accept departures from the July Agreement and the Separation Plan, there are serious concerns regarding his views on the Indo-US strategic ties and his views on nuclear energy. We will address these two issues before we look at what he has said regarding the departures in the two Bills in the US Congress from the agreement reached between India and the US governments.

First, the issue of foreign policy and India-US strategic ties. It is clear from PM’s speech that he believes that there are a number of areas that Indian and US interests converge. Therefore, it is in India’s enlightened national interest that we should presumably line up with the US on those issues. The problem with such formulations is that it allows the current government to line up with the US on any issue claiming “enlightened national interests”. Was it in India’s national interest to break ranks with the entire non-aligned world on the issue of Iran in the IAEA? Is it in India’s national interest to sacrifice a cheap and easy source of fuel – gas, LNG and oil from Iran – for an expensive nuclear route? The issue is not whether Iran should develop nuclear weapons; the current issue before IAEA is whether IAEA has the right to bar Iran from the nuclear fuel cycle only because the US does not like the current regime in Iran. In spite of Indian government taking the position that Iran has a right to the fuel cycle, it has voted with the US to deny Iran this right. Pursuing that Iran should not make nuclear weapons can be a legitimate aim of Indian foreign policy. For this, the surest way is to engage Iran in negotiations, accept its right to the fuel cycle while ensuring that this right does not cross over to nuclear weapons. Instead, India has become an adjunct to US’s policy of “containing” Iran through sanctions and possible later military action, all of which is guided by a desire for regime change than any serious non-proliferation objective. By siding with the US, India has not only damaged its relationship with Iran, but also its credibility in the entire non-aligned world.

Similarly on Israel, India’s completely amoral military relationship with Israel, at a time when Israel is building an apartheid State, carrying out brutal attacks in the occupied territories and has just launched an attack on the Lebanese civilian population, does little justice to itself or its past. There is no point in quoting Jawhar Lal Nehru and India’s freedom struggle as the PM did in his Rajya Sabha speech, when in the world today we are seen to be siding with Israel and the US in most matters. To quote the Iraq issue and the US invasion as a test of independent foreign policy is of little help: the PM can claim very little credit for repeating what in essence is the unanimous stand of the Indian parliament on the US invasion of Iraq.

The Indo-US Nuclear Deal must be seen in this context. On one hand we have had a policy of non-alignment for decades. On the other, we have not only made a gradual shift away from this over time but also a sharp about turn on Iran just after signing the Indo-US deal. Therefore, our apprehensions regarding the impact of this deal on foreign policy still remains. Obviously, if there are specific clauses such as contained in the two Bills before the Congress linking the future of nuclear supplies to good behaviour on Iran, the PM’s position becomes quite difficult. Therefore, the PM seems to have sent two signals with regards to these clauses. One signal is that these clauses need to be removed. The other is that these clauses are not necessary anyway as he thinks India and US have common interests on such issues. It is this kind of mixed signal that causes concern. The concern becomes even more acute when the PM links this about turn in foreign policy to the about turn on economic policy in 1991. It is clear that the PM in his Rajya Sabha speech, is also signalling a major change in our current policy, the lynch pin of which is India and US strategic ties. This is also what the Indo-US Nuclear Deal is about, not just energy.


On nuclear energy, the PM has added very little justification of why he regards an enlarged nuclear component is so critical to India’s energy basket. He has talked about various studies, which have been carried out. No study, to our knowledge in the Planning Commission or anywhere else, has talked of nuclear program larger than 10,000 MW by 2015. May be the PM is privy to more studies that have been done than we are aware of. In that case, he should make such studies public so that its pros and cons can be debated rather make vague references to such studies.

Let us first get the parameters of the nuclear energy straight. The issue is not whether there should be a nuclear component in India’s energy basket. The CPI(M) has always argued that we need to keep our future energy options open and therefore need some investments in nuclear power. The debate is on what size this nuclear program should be. And this needs to be determined strictly by the techno-economics of nuclear power. The reason why India has not put in a larger nuclear energy program is only because of financial constraints. This has been brought out in numerous documents including parliamentary committee reports. Nuclear power requires large capital investments. So if we have an immediate shortfall, which is acting as a constraint on our growth, then to invest large amounts in nuclear power would actually reduce the additional capacity we could build up with either gas or coal as fuel. And for the information of the PM, using gas as the fuel would reduce greenhouse gases as effectively as nuclear energy: you can put in twice the number of plants with the same money and the greenhouse emissions from gas fired plants are much lower than coal fired ones. It is this study – how much money do we have for adding to our installed capacity and how best to use this money that is the crux of the nuclear energy debate.

And unfortunately, the PM’s reply throws very little light on this issue.

Coming now to the provisions of the two Bills before the US Congress and their departure from the original July agreement and the Separation plan. Under intense public pressure, the PM has made public what his government’s concerns are. He has also said he has already taken them up with the US president. As we have noted earlier, this is a welcome precedent that such matters are brought out and discussed in the House and not shrouded in secret confabulations. In any case, the US discussions are open: the Congress is publicly discussing the two Bills. It is only in India that before this discussion in the parliament, the parliament had no way of declaring its position on the departures from the original agreement. The PM has now made clear that he does not agree with continued restrictions on dual use technology, will not accept any link to foreign policy, will not accept an annual presidential reports and review in the US Congress, and not allow US inspectors as envisaged in the two Bills. He has also stated that unless all such restrictions are lifted – both in the US Acts and by the Nuclear Suppliers Group – India will not put its civilian facilities under safeguards. He has also stated that the IAEA agreement would have to be an India-specific one and not under the Additional Model Protocol as is now incorporated in the two US Bills. The question that remains is: if these are its positions, what are the signals that the PM and his government is giving to the US side? Are they clearly stating that unless the boundaries set by India are accepted, India will not agree to the Deal? Or is it only an initial negotiating position, which the US can chip away with bluff, bluster and blandishments? It is here that the PM’s desire for a “historic about turn” in strategic terms becomes important. If he sticks to this position of “strict adherence to the July Agreement”, the Indian people will be with him. If he however gives away on any of the counts on which he has made a solemn declaration, the parliament should have no hesitation in deciding what it then must do.However, the issue of an independent foreign policy as agreed to in the Common Minimum Program and energy mix still remains. The parliament and indeed the nation must debate both these issues. It is not for the government of the day to change the basis of our foreign policy. Machiavelli cannot be used to justify any change, as the PM has sought to do. We are discussing specifically the current direction he has chosen and not that he has brought in change per se. Similarly, the country needs to be told the basis of our nuclear energy program and what size is being contemplated. Mere reference to greenhouse gases and our energy needs cannot be used to by-pass issues of techno-economics of nuclear power and energy security.