Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Bush – Singh Nuclear Accord: Will the Fat Lady (Congress) Sing?

In two days time we will have all the gala political events of Pres. Bush’s visit to India. There is no formal confirmation from any side whether the nuclear deal is finalized or not. The last word was India submitted the list of 14 reactors for international inspection keeping 8 reactors out of any control. The word was USA expecting 5 to 6 reactors at the most out of inspection. So it is anyone’s guess whether deal will be reached during this visit. If not for nothing, it is keeping the excitement alive.

If the agreement does not go through, both sides will put the brave front and will repeat many times how relations between two countries are beyond any one deal. In any case, both sides have hedged their stakes by hinting the possibility that things may have to be discussed beyond this specific visit.

One of the key implications of the proposed accord is India would limit the number nuclear war heads she has. By limiting the number of reactors out of international inspection, India will be essentially limiting her source of enriched weapon grade nuclear material. The questions are - How many reactors for weapons program are comfortable to India? Whether the current stock pile of around 100 nuclear weapons is enough or not? So from Indian side the limit will be decided by:
- what is the number of current atomic weapons which India can muster and is that number okay for India;
- how stifling will it be to continue the nuclear weapons program based on a handful of reactors out of international inspection; and
- what is the possibility for India to get out of any treaty some time in future in case she feels it needs to make more weapons due to changed security scenario.
The last criteria will be reasonably rigid. Having updated NPT to extend in future without any specific limit, USA will try to avoid any clauses to get out of the proposed accord or will at least make it difficult. An exit clause visa vise the limit on reactors out of inspections will be one of the main fulcrums of negotiations.

If India had formulated her global vision based on a better moral foundation of her own ‘restricted’ weapons program (fixed number of weapons – say around 100); India would not have any difficulty in accepting the outer limit. But so far no such imaginative policy initiative has come from India. No doubt there is a potential to play out along such a line, even up to the seat on UN Security Council; without compromising her security within the nuclear active neighborhood. But in absence of any such initiative it is expected that many Indian policy and law makers would feel hesitant to accept any limit on weapons program and hence the resistance from India side to this accord.

Fortunately the way Indian political system works, she will not have to get explicit treaty consent by her parliament. PM and Union Cabinet make the decision and that is the end of the story – the entire Indian sovereign state is bound by what is signed by the PM. It is bit odd, it is a lacuna within India’s democratic parliamentary system and it will be more exposed as more and more international treaties will be signed in future as the world gets more integrated. This is the problem for future Indian parliamentarians to address.

On American side, Congress needs to pass many of these International Treaties. In the case of proposed Bush – Singh Nuclear Accord, Congress will need to specifically alter certain laws which prohibit Nuclear Technology and Material Exchange with countries who are not signatories to NPT, like India. Clearly it is the fat lady - American Congress – who needs to sing if this proposed accord is to see the light at the end; no matter how much Pres. Bush undertakes bullying or Indian state lobbies.

What are the chances of American Congress passing the necessary bills? With Pres. Bush’s political capital dwindling so fast, White House is unlikely to have much room to press Congress. As of now, overall job approval for President is below 40%. Republicans are restless and open in the revolt. Commentaries like ‘Free Fall’ (Andrew Sullivan), ‘Broken Political Antennas’ (Joe Klein in Time), ‘Lost Cause in Iraq War’ (William Buckley); etc. are surfacing frequently; many from Conservative quarters. One poll (Rasmussen) shows advantage to Democrats on the issue of National Security – the bread and butter issue of Bush Republicans. The controversy of Dubai Port Deal shows that the communication between White House and Congress is broken. On this background it will be naïve to expect that Congress would take the nuclear deal on face value.

If elections are taken today, it is quite possible that Democrats could capture both houses of Congress. Traditionally nuclear proliferation is high religion for them and they could stop the deal. There are two motives for Pres. Bush to pursue this deal:
- by opening the possibility of India getting more nuclear energy, the marginal pressure on world oil demand is lessened so that oil prices come down benefiting Americans (no doubt that is in medium to long term, not in short term); and
- usual technique of pressuring China by cultivating friendship with India.
From a policy perspective, Democrats are not suitably disposed to these goals. For them, they have their own pet non-alternative energy programs to remove America’s oil addiction so reducing a marginal demand by other countries is bit of a non issue. Also in terms of China, Democrats would rather prefer to confront directly; if needed by way of protectionists measure; instead of flirting with India. For Democrats the dangers of nuclear Iran and N. Korea are big deals (which indeed are very important for America) so they will not be inclined to jeopardize dealings with these rouge state by creating a new exception with NPT compliance. For these reasons, Democrat majority may prefer not to take the issue of required changes in laws and let kill the deal. Slender Republican majority in Congress after November 2006 with improved strength of Democrats would also have the same effect. Already one House Democrat from Massachusetts has introduced a bill to block Bush – Singh Nuclear Accord.

In a democracy when a political frenzy builds to change the rulers, all the finer issues and normal bills get side lined. Everything becomes completely polarized and short sighted. Not only that, there is a real possibility that if Democrats gain majority in Congress, they would try to impeach Pres. Bush. The large part of such impeachment possibility will be actually created by this incompetent White House. Over flowing of accumulated ‘political skeletons’, would make the job easier for Democrats to dig the political dirt and the worst case scenario will be President requiring to resign. What an odd spectacle – PM of an instable coalition in a 60 years old democracy may outlast a strong nationally elected president of 230 years old democracy! Of course this is all in the realm of speculation. But the way politics has unfolded lately, all these possibilities do not seem as remote as those were when originally the Bush – Singh accord was proposed in the summer of 2005. So the best chance is if required amendments come before the November election and the current Republican Congress passes those. That is the realistic window for this accord.

Umesh Patil
San Jose, CA 95111
February 28, 2006.

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