OPINION

A highly improper step

By sending the draft safeguards agreement to the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency before facing a vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha, the Manmohan Singh government has violated not just an assurance its External Affairs Minister gave the nation two days earlier but also the most fundamental of democratic norms. As Pranab Mukherjee put it in a press conference, the norm is that a government that has lost its majority will not have the moral authority to “bind” the country to “an international agreement.” The reason the Congress-led government is abandoning both procedure and propriety is not hard to find. The Bush administration’s principal concern at this juncture is that there should be enough time for the American legislative process to be completed following the proposed change of guidelines by the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The indecent haste with which the IAEA Secretariat was instructed to circulate the draft agreement to the Board of Governors offers a fresh basis for the charge that the Manmohan Singh dispensation is concerned more with fulfilling its commitment to the Bush administration than in looking after the interests of the Indian people. What is more, paranoiac non-transparency has been the hallmark of the government’s handling of the nuclear deal since March 2005. In the latest instance, the text of the draft safeguards agreement negotiated with the IAEA secretariat was kept a secret from political India after it was falsely claimed that IAEA procedure required the Indian government to treat it as a “privileged” and confidential document.

Turning to the draft agreement itself, the 23-page text consists of three parts — a fairly detailed preamble, 130 numbered clauses, and an annex listing the facilities that will be subject to safeguards under the agreement. The annex is blank; facilities will be added to it and placed under safeguards after India determines “that all conditions conducive to the accomplishment of the objective” of the safeguards agreement “are in place” and files a Declaration and subsequent Notifications to the IAEA. The safeguards on nuclear facilities that India imports will apply in perpetuity, in keeping with the IAEA’s standard template for safeguard agreements with non-nuclear weapon states. What is “India-specific” about the agreement is that unlike the Non-Nuclear Weapons States, India will maintain unsafeguarded nuclear facilities over which the Agency will have no say. The government has made much of the complex fuel supply assurances it had secured as well as the right of India to take unspecified “corrective measures” in the event of a fuel supply breakdown. The same formulations have carried over to the safeguards agreement, but only in the preamble. What seems likely is that this text will be a hot potato, domestically and internationally.

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