August 14, 2007Foreign AffairsSecurity

A good deal, but very bad politics

In support of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

Dr Manmohan Singh defends the deal

Readers of this blog will know that The Acorn has been overwhelmingly underimpressed with Dr Manmohan Singh’s prime ministership, and, on several occasions, called for his resignation. He has allowed his unblemished’ reputation to mask the venality and criminality in his cabinet. His government has not only shown lack of initiative for further economic reforms, but seems keen to take India back to the times before the P V Narasimha Rao reforms of the 1990s. His government is an abysmal failure on national security—be it on the Pakistan, on home-grown jihadi groups, on Naxalites or in Assam. Yes, there are several reasons why Dr Manmohan Singh must step down.

But the US-India nuclear deal is not one of them.

Much of the opposition to the deal has been either ideological or legalistic. Hardliners have argued that nothing, nothing, must be allowed to come in the way of India’s development of more nuclear weapons. Now, nuclear weapons will remain pretty powerful guarantors of survival and security well into the conceivable future. But mere ownership of nuclear weapons without broad, comprehensive national power is counterproductive—a good example being our nuclear neighbour to the West. So it really is a question of to what extent India should pursue development of nuclear weapons given the costs.

That’s where the minimum credible deterrent comes in—it is, in other words, the smallest quantity of nuclear weapons necessary to ensure that India’s strategic adversaries take it seriously enough not to launch an attack. Much of the debate over the last two years has been over defining the minimum. Since the exact quantity and numbers are top secret, one has had to rely on commentators close to the security establishment for light. In order not jeopardise the ongoing negotiations with the United States, those in the know did not articulate their opinion too strongly. It was only after the recent agreement on the text of the 123 agreement that K Santhanam, a former member of the nuclear establishment, confirmed that India has enough fissile material and warheads to constitute the minimum credible deterrent.

Yet deterrence is not a static concept—it has to evolve with the changes in the strategic landscape as well as the arsenals of the other nuclear powers. Does the deal prevent India from increasing the stockpile of fissile material for new warheads? It doesn’t. More importantly, as The Acorn has argued, India can enhance its deterrence capacity by improving delivery systems.

But what if India has to conduct additional explosive tests to build a new generation of warheads: thermonuclear and low-yield weapons, for instance. Won’t the deal make it very difficult? Yes, but only marginally. India’s self-imposed unilateral moratorium on testing is to a large extent sanctimonious. In reality, the geopolitical and economic costs of testing unilaterally outweigh any benefits that might accrue to improving India’s deterrence posture. This calculation will change materially if India were to test in response to a Chinese, Pakistani or perhaps even an Iranian test. Or jointly with like-minded nuclear powers.

So while hardliners can certainly find fault with the deal for straying from the maximalist prescription, there is sufficient room for India to develop its nuclear capability to maintain the nuclear balance.

The legalistic opposition to the deal has centred around whether it affects India’s legal right’ to conduct nuclear tests and the dispute resolution mechanism should the United States decide to terminate the agreement and recall the fuel and components it supplied.

Those who worry about the right’ to test miss an important aspect of a great power—that international laws are subsidiary to its national interests. As the Indian Express put it in a recent editorial, although agreements between nations do codify a particular understanding at a given point in time, future interpretation and action by states are based on cold calculations of interests”. The legal right’ to test is a red herring.

But what if those perfidious Americans cut off supply of nuclear fuel to India? Well, unless Indian diplomacy goes to sleep after concluding the deal with America, it is clear that similar supply arrangements will be made with Russia, France and other countries. An astute management of relations with the countries in the supplier cartel can ensure that not only will fuel supplies not dry up should Washington pull the plug, but also address the issue of American pressure’ on Indian foreign policy. Nuclear fuel purchase relationships with these countries offer India a strategic opening to engage these countries in comprehensive political and economic relationships. Critics of the UPAs handling of nuclear deal would have been on a firmer footing if they had asked whether this government has the strategy and the political will to accomplish this.

In condemning the compromise agreement concluded in late July, the BJP has added to its many failings after it lost the 2004 elections. By opposing an agreement it would have given its right arm for” if it were in power, it has damaged its credentials as a party which takes national security seriously. By making common cause with the anti-national Left, it has allowed the communal socialist Congress party to claim the middle ground. Most importantly it has shown that it is out of sync with the national mood. Most Indians are unlikely to be familiar with the nitty-gritties of deterrence, reprocessing and reactor safeguards. But they—and most of all the BJPs own supporters—know that India and the United States find themselves on the same side.

The BJP will find itself having to explain to Indian voters why it joined the Left, China and Pakistan in opposing this deal. [Update: Especially given this]

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