Sunday, Oct 02, 2022

Finally, A Squeak

While the foreign secretary's recent remarks are a welcome departure from the pussyfooting that was done on the A.Q. Khan issue, it would be useful to elaborate what the 'residual issues' are that remain to be clarified.

AP File
An address that Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran made to the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (on October 24) has attracted some attention in the media. It is forthright in the way it outlines where India stands at the nuclear crossroads. The timing of the speech is as interesting as the contents. It comes right after a visit by Nicholas Burns, the American undersecretary of state who will oversee from the American side, the implementation of the July 18 accord on nuclear energy.

Nick Burns came to discuss the implementation and the time schedules that will determine when and how the July 18 agreement will come to fruition. The speech comes a month before the IAEA will take stock of what to do with Iran. It also sets the tenor for the winter session of Parliament where the issue will no doubt be debated. There are many voices that argue that as a result of the nuclear deal with the United States, India has lost, in no small measure, the autonomy of decision-making with respect to critical areas of foreign policy.

At the heart of the speech is the argument that insofar as the reality for nuclear power countries are concerned, the world has changed and in keeping with the dynamics of this change, New Delhi is adapting to the emerging realities. This is predicated on the fact that New Delhi has emerged as a nuclear weapon state. Given the dynamism and the technological sophistication of the Indian economy, New Delhi cannot any longer afford not to act in keeping with this acquired heft in world affairs. There is a suggestion here somewhere that the vote on Iran can be viewed from this perspective. It is also an indication that New Delhi will stay the course on this matter. It is another matter that Russia too would not like the matter to go to the UN, and would rather that the problem is solved before then. India can draw a certain political comfort from this.

One of the main pitches of the speech seems to be the necessity to highlight another strategic objective: that it is a technological imperative not to be denied technology that will shape the future and the government has created a "favourable enabling environment" for this. He lists the enactment of the WMD Bill and the upgradation of the national export control lists to harmonise them with the Nuclear Supplier Group and the MTCR guidelines as part of this instinct.

The proposed separation of the civilian and military nuclear facilities and the negotiation of an additional protocol with the IAEA are steps in the future but will evoke a lively debate. In sum, the foreign secretary makes the case that India is positioning itself to be a critical player in any future arrangement that emerges as a result of this churning but with the caveat that it should have a big say. For example, in the case of the Proliferation Security Initiative where there is not yet sufficient clarity.

But there are some aspects of the speech that are bound to generate political fog. The foreign secretary brings a new emphasis on Pakistan by bringing up the AQ Khan network and highlighting that "it is important that remaining issues...are satisfactorily clarified as well." Hearteningly, the foreign secretary declares, "We see no reason why there should be an insistence on personal interviews with Iranian scientists but an exception granted to a man who has been accused of running a global 'nucler Wal-Mart.'"

This is a welcome departure from the pussyfooting that was done on the issue when the news broke in the fond hope that silence will earn brownie points from Washington and will not rock the peace process that had been tentatively underway. This assertion puts paid to any residual Pakistani hopes that New Delhi would legitimise its nuclear programme any more than it did last June when Pakistan and India said they were moving from flashpoint to nuclear stability.

While the foreign secretary was at it, it would have been worthwhile to elaborate what the residual issues are that remain to be clarified as well.