ElBaradei in India- A Friend Caught in the Storm
When Mohamed ElBaradei told me that he would be in India on the same days that I was going to be in Vienna, I was not only disappointed, but also perturbed that he might be in India at the wrong time. Indeed he was and, irony of ironies, the forum he came to address on the benefits of India joining the nuclear mainstream turned out to be the burial ground of the India-U.S. nuclear deal. His proverbial diplomatic skills were on display at every step, but his friends in India could have spared him the experience. Whether the Government chose to stick to the deal and faced elections or took the path of self-preservation, ElBaradei was sure to be embarrassed. He could have played a role only if India had decided to begin consultations with the IAEA on the next steps for the implementation of the deal. To his credit, the IAEA chief weathered the storm admirably, without hurting his hosts or himself.
ElBaradei is unique among the non-proliferationists in that his commitment to the NPT is equally matched by his commitment to the development of the developing world. Non-proliferation is not a dogma for him; it is the first step towards elimination of nuclear weapons. He is, therefore, as tough with the nuclear weapon states as with the non-nuclear weapon states when it comes to their commitments under the NPT. He is also meticulous in investigating allegations about violations of the treaty as he has shown in the cases of Iraq and Iran. His latest statements on Iran prompted the New York Times to call ElBaradei an “irritant”, reminiscent of the propaganda mounted against him when the war clouds were gathering over Iraq. His assertion of Iran’s innocence, unless proved guilty, is seen as blasphemy by the Ayatollahs of non-proliferation in the west.
As for India and the others (Pakistan and Israel) who are outside the NPT, ElBaradei has shown greater tolerance and understanding than his predecessors. He has consistently maintained that a way should be found to bring them into the fold rather than isolate them. Long before the India-U.S. deal was contemplated, he used to suggest small but significant measures to us to bring us closer to the world consensus on non-proliferation. He felt that India should make use of the Technical Co-operation Fund and also accept safety inspections without compromising our position. He was extremely sensitive to our fundamental position and he sought to find an alternate route. For him, the India-U.S. nuclear deal was this very alternative and that explains his enthusiastic welcome for the initiative even without any prompting by India or the United States.
The invitation for the IAEA chief went not from the government, but from the Hindustan Times. It is not clear whether the newspaper acted on its own, sensing his news value or the government encouraged it in the hope of gaining some support for the deal. The function in Mumbai at which Dr. Anil Kakodkar handed over a miniature model of a cobalt therapy unit for Vietnam as part of the technical co-operation programme was a bit laboured because a similar ceremony was held in Vienna at the time of the General Conference in September. There has been even a suggestion by those who do not know ElBaradei that the U.S. prompted him to go to India. It is also significant that the Prime Minister broke normal protocol to host a meal for ElBaradei. Normally, the Prime Minister does not even meet heads of UN Specialised Agencies.
The masterly diplomat that he is, ElBaradei sensed the atmosphere in India very quickly and steered clear of either supporting the nuclear deal per se or suggesting that there is any hurry to begin the negotiations with the IAEA Board or the NSG. He stressed, however, that, as a friend of India, he would like India to get the full benefits of nuclear technology and not remain isolated. He also made the point that the global efforts for elimination of nuclear weapons cannot succeed without the participation of India in the nuclear mainstream. At one point, it was reported that he suggested that the safeguards agreement was not “significant” as the IAEA already had similar agreements with India, but what he meant was that it did not involve complex negotiations, once there was political agreement.
The only point he made about the deal was that it was a significant step towards the ending of India’s isolation and that regardless of changes in the United States, the deal will go through the Congress. He noted that there was bipartisan support for the deal. Even after it became clear that the deal would be shelved in order to save the government, Elbaradei did not express any alarm. His poise and choice of words were impeccable even though the spinning around him would have made him wonder whether he should have come to India at this particular juncture.
The sudden change of heart by the government to shelve the deal when Elbaradei was in town was the mother of all coincidences. But it may not be a coincidence that the left decided to press the government to abandon the deal when he was in India. They may have seen the visit as a demonstration by the government that it was going to take the deal forward. ElBaradei is a friend indeed, but we should have waited for the need to arise before we tested his friendship.