Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Deadlines, headlines and breadlines

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 19th Dec 2006

In November 2005, with the nuclear negotiations weighing heavy on his head, PM Manmohan Singh appealed to India’s strategic community to generate analysis and long-term options that could guide government in making decisions such as the nuclear deal. “Policy making in most countries is often reactive,” confessed the PM; “Governments are driven by deadlines and events.”

It has long been fashionable within the intellectual cabal that styles itself as India’s strategic community to bemoan this country’s absence of what they term a “strategic culture”. But while the political cacophony that accompanied the US-India negotiations was only to be expected, the absence of a strategic culture has seldom been better highlighted than by the so-called analysts, who abandoned even lip service to the concepts of even-handedness and dialectic consideration. The quality of India’s domestic debate on the deal over the last eighteen months has brought little credit to a country known for its intellectual edge.

The inputs for this debate have been narrow viewpoints from sources with personal stakes in the success or failure of the negotiations. For irate members of the nuclear autocracy, fission and fusion and their fraternity’s interests loom far larger than diplomatic or economic interests. For economists in the Planning Commission and diplomats in government, largely free of their predecessors’ nuclear outlook, India’s indigenous nuclear gains can be conveniently encashed for more immediate benefits on the international stage. The military generals, long excluded from nuclear decision-making, mutter from the sidelines. The political uberclass has a long term vision extending all the way to the UP elections.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, wide-ranging analysis of a multi-faceted and technical subject has not been forthcoming. This has allowed anti-deal protagonists to dishonestly blur issues of sovereignty to whip up anti-deal feelings, e.g. the outcry against “intrusive US inspections” on our civilian nuclear plants, as opposed to “benign” and acceptable IAEA inspections. No analyst points out that IAEA inspectors are actually US (or for that matter any country’s, including Pakistan and China) inspectors on a three-year deputation to the IAEA. Incidentally, if you would like a job as an inspector at the IAEA, please apply before 7th January 2007, through the IAEA website http://recruitment.iaea.org/vacancies/p/2006/2006_912.html.

In similar style, the vacuum of focused analysis has allowed pro-dealers to side step the question of America’s reliability as a partner in nuclear commerce. Instead of a detailed and public scrutiny of America’s backtracking on Tarapur, and its applicability in the future, there are banal statements about the absence of choice. India does have an alternative and that is to walk away from the deal; like stock in a rising market, India will only be more attractive tomorrow. But that option must be evaluated analytically rather than ideologically.

At the root of the problem is government failure to facilitate the creation of credible and independent think tanks. Token attempts in this direction have resulted in paper tigers like the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA) whose 54 research scholars consume crores of rupees from the Ministry of Defence to churn out status papers that could be produced in a day by any regular newspaper reader who knows how to Google. The IDSA’s recent work includes generic summaries like: “State of Militancy in Manipur”, “Uncertainty in Sri Lanka”, and “China’s claims over Arunachal”. With the Indo-US nuclear deal providing so many facets to research scholars, the IDSA offers just one paper on the subject, a predictable recounting of how the Hyde Bill differs with what the Prime Minister stated in parliament.

Part of the problem is the way India’s Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) has excluded from academic institutions the study of nuclear engineering. Contrast this with the US, where serious analysts come with degrees in this discipline from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which is operated by the University of California for the US Department of Energy. Dr R Rajaraman, Professor Emeritus of Physics at the JNU points out, “there is no real way to study nuclear engineering, except in institutions run by the DAE. An analyst studying nuclear issues would have to take anything the DAE says at face value.”

Across the world research is often polarised along ideological lines, but can still remain credible when based on rigorous research and analysis. Not so in India. The failure of the government, private industry, and the military, to create and support a rigorous strategic culture has meant that the final decision on nuclear cooperation with the US will be shaped by one dominant viewpoint within government and by political alliances rather than a considered assessment of the long-term interest. As India grows and its stakes rise, such an approach could prove unbearably expensive.

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