Risking Armageddon for Cold, Hard Cash

By Mira Kamdar

While everyone has been abuzz about Georgia, the Beijing Olympics and Sarah Palin, perhaps the most important development in the world has been unfolding with almost no attention. India and the United States, along with deep-pocketed corporations, have been steadily pushing along a lucrative and dangerous new nuclear pact, the US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement. Both governments have been working at a fever pitch to get the pact approved by the 45-country Nuclear Suppliers Group, which governs the world’s trade in nuclear materials, and before Congress for a final vote before it adjourns this month.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says the deal will let his country, which refuses to sign either the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, take “its rightful place among the comity of nations.” I understand why today’s democratic, globalized and modernizing India wants recognition and respect, and I agree that it needs more energy. But this foolish, risky deal is not the way to get any of these things. India’s democracy has already paid a crippling price, and now the planet may too.
The historic deal will allow US nuclear companies to again do business in India, something that has been barred since 1974, when New Delhi tested its first atomic bomb. (India tested nuclear bombs again in 1998, spurring Pakistan to follow suit with its own tests days later.) The pact will also lift restrictions on other countries’ sales of nuclear technology and fuel to India while asking virtually nothing from India in return. All that will undermine the very international system that India so ardently seeks to join.
The deal risks triggering a new arms race in Asia: A miffed and unstable Pakistan will seek nuclear parity with India, and China will fume at a transparent US ploy to balance Beijing’s rise by building up India as a counterweight next door. The pact will gut global efforts to contain the spread of nuclear materials and encourage other countries to flout the NPT that India is now being rewarded for failing to sign.
The US-India deal will divert billions of dollars away from India’s real development needs in agriculture, education, health care, housing, sanitation and roads. It will also distract India from developing clean energy sources and reducing emissions from its many coal plants. Instead, the pact will focus the nation’s efforts on an energy source that will, under the rosiest of projections, contribute a mere 8 percent of India’s total energy needs — and won’t do even that until 2030.
So what will the deal accomplish? It will generate billions of dollars in lucrative contracts for the corporate members of the US-India Business Council and the Confederation of Indian Industry. The Bush administration hopes that it will help resuscitate the moribund US nuclear power industry and expand the use of this “non-polluting” source of energy, a pillar of the Bush team’s energy policy. The deal will let the real leaders of the global nuclear-power business — France and Russia, both of which eagerly support the deal — reap huge profits in India. And the pact will provide spectacularly profitable opportunities to India’s leading corporations, which are slavering for their share of the booty. How much? The Washington Post estimates more than US$100 billion in business over the next 20 years, plus perhaps tens of thousands of jobs in India and the United States.
This is what the US-India nuclear deal is really all about. This is what the nonproliferation regime that has kept the world safe from nuclear Armageddon for decades is being risked for: cash.
Industry groups have lobbied tirelessly on Capitol Hill to bring US lawmakers on board. The US-India Business Council, the leading advocacy group for major US firms investing in India, has hired the best professionals, including the lawyer-lobbyist firm Patton Boggs LLP, which has been working on the deal for the past two years. The Indian government turned to Barbour, Griffith and Rogers LLC, whose international team was conveniently headed until last month by Robert Blackwill, Bush’s first ambassador to India and one of the prime forces behind the pact.
The version of the deal the Bush administration put before the Nuclear Suppliers Group went further than ever, giving India a “clean” waiver of the usual responsibilities of a nuclear power. In other words, India gets unfettered access to nuclear fuel and technology, and it doesn’t have to do anything in return. It doesn’t have to do what Iraq did last month and sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which has now been signed by 179 nations. It doesn’t have to open all its reactors to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency, meaning that both the new technologies India will now be able to acquire and the fuel it now has on hand can be plowed into its nuclear weapons program.
Scandalously, the Bush administration asked the Nuclear Suppliers Group to bless a proposal that excludes the modest provisions that Congress imposed on the deal in 2006. Why? Because the White House knows that anything short of the current “something-for-nothing” version risks finishing off the Indian government, already weakened by its support for a pact that faces fierce resistance back home.
Singh and his ruling Congress party pulled out all the stops to get a skeptical parliament to approve the deal. His left-wing coalition partners abandoned ship. With the survival of the Singh government at stake, lucrative ministerships and airport-naming rights were dangled before lawmakers. A.B. Bardhan, head of India’s Communist Party, claimed in July that the going rate was more than $5.5 million for a vote in favor of the deal, and Kuldeep Bishnoi, a young MP from Haryana state, boasted of being offered a record-breaking 1 billion rupees — about $22.5 million. The Times of London reported that the Singh government was even planning to let some friendly parliamentarians out of jail for the vote. (Fully a quarter of India’s legislators are facing criminal charges, according to the BBC.)
These corrosive effects on India’s democracy will be felt for years. India’s complicated coalition politics will become even more chaotic, with political leaders ready to switch alliances at the drop of a pin — for the right price. The big losers will be its people, as India’s already dismal efforts to fight poverty sink even deeper into graft and corruption.
More ominously, the deal will tell other would-be nuclear powers — and nuclear rogues — that the old barriers to nonproliferation need not be taken seriously. They certainly have not been taken seriously by the United States. Other, less high-minded powers will surely follow the short-sighted example being set by Delhi and Washington. Russia has emphatically signaled that it has had enough of global norms that it considers unfair and is keen to return to old-fashioned realpolitik.
India’s nemesis and neighbor Pakistan is outraged that India has been offered a deal it won’t get. The United States relied on Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s dictatorship to keep the nuclear arsenal in check, but today’s weak, squabbling civilian government is ill-equipped to defeat the Islamist terrorist groups only too eager to get their hands on a loose Pakistani nuke.
Meanwhile, China cannot help noticing that the United States has engaged in bizarre doublespeak over what it expects of rising Asian powers. The Bush administration has told China that it must behave as a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system — meaning China should expect no exceptions to global rules as it struggles to meet the challenges posed by its booming economy. That, of course, is the precise context in which the Bush administration has lobbied for the nuclear deal with India. The White House has called upon China “to embrace energy security and nonproliferation principles that are in accordance with the international norms,” even as it pleads to exempt India from these very norms.
The nuclear deal will not magically transform India into China’s economic or military equal. A shocking 42 percent of Indians live below the World Bank’s new poverty threshold of $1.25 per day. Even if India managed to match China reactor for reactor and missile for missile, Delhi could do so only at the expense of precisely the investments in human and physical infrastructure that could make India into a truly great power, prosperous and secure. This is the real tragedy of the US-India nuclear deal. It’s not too late to stop it.

Kamdar, a Bernard Schwartz fellow at the Asia Society, is the author of Planet India: The Turbulent Rise of the Largest Democracy and the Future of Our World.

Filed under: Opinion

Comments are closed.