When George W. Bush and Manmohan Singh announced that they would jointly work to ensure that India get freed of the innumerable restraints that were placed after the 1974 Pokhran mini-explosion, the spin from South Block and Shastri Bhavan was that the country would finally get freed of the fetters first imposed by Jimmy Carter nearly four decades back. That India would be treated as a “de facto” nuclear weapons state and that the country would be given a clean waiver from the restrictions imposed by the Nuclear Suppliers Group. In 2008, the NSG did approve a waiver that, at face value, amounted to exempting India from the non-proliferation treaty. The champagne corks were pulled out and the establishment celebrated.
The question is: did they celebrate a clean waiver, or simply that they had succeeded in hoodwinking the public — including, it must be admitted, this columnist — into believing that India had escaped much of the NPT’s restraints and could now go about developing both its indigenous as well as its imported program? Friends within the atomic energy and nuclear weapons fraternity warned then that the benefits were created by smoke and mirrors, and that in effect, the Singh-Bush deal would gradually but inevitably de-nuclearise India and so degrade the nuclear deterrent that it would be valueless even against North Korea, much less a Pakistan armed by China. After Barack Obama became President of the United States nearly three years ago, the future ought to have been obvious. Senator Obama was among the few lawmakers in that chamber implacably opposed to the nuclear deal. Believing as he did that only the West had the divine right to possess advanced nuclear technology. China was the exception, there in this privileged club by sufferance, because the country could not be rolled back the way puny India could be.
The French — that fortunate country so much beloved of our defence procurers — were the first to indicate that all was not well. They stonewalled informal soundings about reprocessing technology, hinting that such “advanced technology” was not permissible for India. This despite the fact that Homi Jehangir Bhabha had ensured more than four decades back that India could undertake such a task. The Russians showed the other boot, giving the country processed uranium pellets as feedstock (as the Chinese earlier had) rather than unprocessed uranium that could (with ease) get processed in India. Incidentally, although there is no legal obligation on India to be so forbearing, the country’s political establishment — whether Congress blue or BJP saffron or Third Front polka-dotted — has refused since the 1970s for the country’s scientists to reprocess the pools of spent uranium, especially at the Tarapur plant. Such a feedstock could have done away with the shortage of uranium that has plagued the Indian program, but the order to do so was never given.
Interestingly, whenever efforts were made to recover some of this country’s 60,000 tons of natural uranium, miscellaneous NGOs would spring up and block the same, using the country’s judicial system as well as political parties and the media. In states such as Meghalaya, the Manmohan Singh government has practically given up trying to extract sufficient uranium. Of course, “shortage of uranium” has been put forward as the main justification for the Singh-Bush deal.
Now that the NSG had given a “clean waiver”, this shortage ought to have disappeared through imports. It has, but on the same conditions as apply to non-nuclear weapons signatories of the NPT. In other words, India gets placed — in practice — in the same queue as Lesotho or Guatemala when it comes to the import of nuclear technology or materiel. Hardly what was promised to the country when the nuclear deal was rushed through the political system.
Worse, the CIRUS reactor has been mothballed, thus severely affecting feedstock for the small supply of nuclear weapons available to India against potential and present threats. Since 2008, a series of incremental but consequential changes in the design and operation of reactors in India will mean the shrinking to near-zero of the country’s stock of plutonium, thereby ending the nuclear weapons program. This at a time when Pakistan, North Korea and in the future Iran will become more and more nuclear-capable, unconcerned as they are with pleasing the many friends of Montek Singh Ahluwalia. Within a few years, the indigenous three-stage program will wither away to insignificance, and the country will become totally dependent on imported feedstock and technology. The French, the Russians and the Americans will be laughing all the way to the bank, while the Chinese will be smirking at the de-fanging of a country that once saw itself as a serious competitor to the PRC.
There has been a double double-cross on the nuclear deal. The first was when the US under Barack Obama and his Euro-centric team began pushing India into the non-nuclear weapons pen through changes in regulations following the nuke deal. These alterations mean that the benefits from the deal have disappeared but the costs continue and multiply. Worst of all, the dream of self-sufficiency through the use of thorium via fast-breeder reactors will vanish. What Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi preserved, Sonia Gandhi is throwing away.