Now that India and the US have formally inked the 123 civil nuclear cooperation agreement and sealed another pact with France following the Sep 6 waiver by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), it is time to look at the fierce debate on the issue in this country with some detachment.
The debate was not just about the nuclear issue alone. In fact it was about two competing worldviews held by rival groups. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh belongs to the school that argues that after the end of the Cold War, the international system has changed and the bipolar world has yielded place to a balance of power system, comprising six powers - the US, the 27-nation European Union, China, Japan, Russia and India. The centre of gravity of world economy is shifting from the trans-Atlantic area to Asia. China has grown rapidly and India, Russia, Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa and Mexico are also expected to grow rapidly, thereby reducing the dominance of the US as an economic power in the world. Since bipolarity has come to an end and the US, the EU, China, India and Russia are independent nuclear weapon powers, there is not likely to be any war among them - a situation new to the world. On the other hand, terrorism, organised crime, narcotics, religious extremism, pandemics and failed states are likely
to pose international threats which these major powers may have to deal with collectively. This situation has developed along with the globalisation of the economy.
While the US will be militarily, economically and technologically pre-eminent it is not in a position to impose its policies on other major countries. The view that the US is trying to attempt to enlist India for military containment of China is totally untenable. The US is China's largest trade partner. China holds hundreds of billions of dollars of US treasury bonds. Their economies are so intertwined that what happens to Dow Jones has an immediate impact on the Shanghai Stock Exchange. It will take many decades for the US to reach with India the level of economic intimacy it has with China. All that the US, the EU, Russia and Japan are interested in promoting is faster growth of India so that there can be greater balance among the powers in Asia and the world.
Such a balance of power involves both competition and cooperation. The US and the EU, the US and Japan, China and Japan are all cooperating and competing economically and technologically at the same time. There will be similar competition and cooperation between China and India, though China has advanced far ahead of India and the latter will have to sustain a high economic growth rate to reduce the gap with China. India's rise as an economic power has been hailed all over the world as unique. When a major power rises, it generates a sense of threat among other nations. This is what happened when Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Russia or Communist China rose as major economic powers. But India's emergence is seen as non-threatening by other major powers. India getting an NSG waiver and being allowed to have a nuclear arsenal in spite of not signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are signs of India being viewed as a non-threatening balancer in the six-power balance of power system.
Those who oppose the nuclear deal have a different worldview. They are still conditioned by the historical experience of the Cold War era, are not reconciled to globalisation of the international economy and have fears of possible nuclear wars among the major nuclear weapon powers. Their worldview rejects the economic intimacy of the US and China and regards them as potential adversaries. It considers that with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world has become unipolar with the US in a commanding position to dominate the world. Therefore, they like to believe that when the US makes a move to promote India as a balancer, it amounts to the incorporation of India in the hegemonic US strategic system. Since China is the only non-democratic major power and is likely to rise to close the economic gap with the US, this school regards China as a potential adversary of the US.
Second, India has been isolationist from 1947 till 1992 when economic liberalisation started to integrate India with the international economic system. The isolationists have fears about integration with the rest of the world. Fears of the British East India Company coming back and scenarios of multinationals dominating India are being conjured up. Underlying this view is the lack of self-confidence to deal with the world at large economically, technologically, strategically and politically - presumably a colonial legacy.
This school ignores the fact that the term used for India developing relationships with other major powers is not alliance but partnership. In an alliance the leader of the alliance has a decisive say. Partnership is different. Neither the US nor India has any previous experience in partnership. Therefore, both the countries will have to try hard to cultivate a partnership - a new experience for both. We have seen that in the WTO (World Trade Organisation) issues India and China are on one side and the US and the European Union are ranged on the other. The arguments have been pursued fiercely for months. Those who fear that with nuclear agreements India would lose its autonomy should explain why India is leading the opposition to industrial powers on the WTO issues.
All these differences in perspectives lead to a major contradiction in approach to international trends. While the Manmohan Singh school argues that there are vast opportunities in the present global trends for India to exploit, the second school fears that some of the global trends may prove hostile to Indian interests and security and, therefore, India has to be cautious. In a sense it is a repeat of the controversy we witnessed in the 1990s when then prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and then finance minister Manmohan Singh launched the economic liberalisation. Not only did Manmohan Singh and Narasimha Rao demonstrate they were right in launching economic liberalisation but their policy led to the comfortable foreign exchange balance in 1998 which enabled India to conduct the nuclear test without too much worry about external pressure.
Such controversies are the pith and substance of the democratic process. If and when the party which loses the argument at present comes to power it will not necessarily give up a successful policy. It will make some marginal changes and appropriate the policy as its own. This happened in the case of economic liberalisation and may very well happen in respect of our nuclear policy. There were critics of the non-alignment policy who asserted that they would work for genuine non-alignment. They discovered on assuming office that our non-alignment was genuine enough. There were critics of our nuclear tests. Again, on coming to office the critics found that the nuclear weapons were developed by their own leaders. The ongoing debates should, therefore, be treated with a certain amount of scepticism and tolerance.
(K. Subrahmanyam is an eminent strategic expert who writes on foreign policy and national security issues. He can be contacted at email@example.com).