End of India-US nuclear deal?

22 October 2007
The suspension of the India-US nuclear agreement, due to opposition from Indian Left parties, probably means the deal is as good as dead and could impact on the country's strategic alignment with the US.
India's ruling United Progressive Alliance has blinked first in its eyeball-to-eyeball standoff with the Left over the India-US nuclear deal. It has suspended all negotiations necessary to complete it. There are indications, including statements nine days ago by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi, that the suspension could last months. Both stressed that Lok Sabha elections "are still far away"; the "deadline is 2009"; and the government will "complete its term". Singh said: "If the deal does not come through, it will be a disappointment, but not the end of life…" Gandhi paid a tribute to the Left and said: "We're not looking for a confrontation … You have to understand the Left. They have an ideology… We're certainly not in favour of early elections." Certain overzealous supporters of the deal have put fanciful interpretations on these utterances to conclude that the UPA will ram it through, or force the Left to accept an amended version of it. Some other pro-deal enthusiasts claim it's being suspended "only to be revived later"; indeed, going slow on it would "enhance the chances" of its revival. They seemingly received a boost with Singh's statement in Pretoria this past Wednesday that the process of evolving a domestic nuclear consensus is still on. But this was a vague, far-from-well-considered, defensive statement. In truth, the deal is on the way to the cold storage unless the Congress wants early elections -- which its UPA partners oppose. The UPA failed to persuade the Left to go "soft" on the deal. It also tried hardball tactics. But the Left wouldn't blink. It was prepared to face losses in an early election, but not dilute its opposition to the deal, based on ideological grounds, which -- right or wrong -- it takes seriously. What clinched the issue wasn't a debate over the deal's merits, but hard-nosed power calculations. UPA allies DMK, Rashtriya Janata Dal and Nationalist Congress Party opposed a mid-term election, in which they're likely to do much worse than in 2004. Most Congress leaders too loath to risk elections in which the party would at best win 170 seats (present tally, 145 of a total of 543), and become politically more vulnerable than now. They reckoned that aggressively pursuing the deal would probably mean losing the government -- and the deal as well. The UPA's collapse would expose its inability to generate a domestic consensus and strengthen the deal's international opponents. The Left proved unrelenting even after a last-ditch October 6/7 efforts by Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee through senior CPM leader Jyoti Basu. Eventually, the UPA-Left joint committee meeting on October 9 put the deal on hold. It has long been understood in India's policy circles that the deal would face stiff opposition in the Nuclear Suppliers' Group, where even one of its 45 member-states can block an exemption for India from its nuclear commerce rules. Ireland, New Zealand and the Nordic countries are opposed to such exemption. Germany, Japan and China -- which is keeping its cards close to its chest -- might join them. However, opposition at the IAEA shouldn't be underrated. After all, India wanted to sign an unprecedented inspections agreement with it that fits neither its standard categories: for the nuclear weapons-states (NWSs) recognised by the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and for non-NWSs. Any member of the 35-strong Board of Governors could veto a special agreement for India by asking for a reference to the next NPT Review Conference, due only in 2010. A long delay in clearing the deal at the IAEA or the Nuclear Suppliers' Group could prove fatal. The deadline for its approval is set by US domestic politics. If Bush can't present the deal to Congress for ratification by February/March, when the Democrats and Republicans name their presidential candidates, the deal is as good as dead. The deal is very much Bush's baby and won't go through Congress unless he invests a huge amount of political capital in its favour. And he won't have much capital left once he becomes a true lame duck early next year. Given these political dynamics, the deal's moment may well have passed. Three questions arise. How is this reality likely to influence public perceptions in India? What does the deal's absence mean for India-US relations? And how is the new situation likely to affect Indian politics? Indian public perceptions are sharply polarised between the elite, which craves for the deal as the cornerstone of a new strategic partnership with the US, and a majority of the people, who are sceptical or indifferent towards this prospect. The US isn't exactly popular in India. Yet, such is the growing influence of the pro-American lobby in India, in particular its media, that it has run a crusade and presented the deal as a litmus test for India's emergence as a Great Power! This has damaged the media's integrity and credibility -- which doesn't bode well for Indian democracy. The debate however has had positive fallout: in raising questions about the viability of nuclear power as the key to energy security, and in highlighting the deal's likely effects on the global prospect for nuclear disarmament and peace. The questions about nuclear powers need to be pursued seriously, with a sharp analysis of its economics, safety and environmental soundness given its potential for grave accidents and legacy of radioactive wastes which remain hazardous of thousands of years. In the absence of a rational decision based on such analysis, it would be foolhardy to go headlong into nuclear power development -- just when much of the developed world is shunning that course. No less important are the deal's implications for the global nuclear order. It's likely to encourage other countries to cross the nuclear threshold, and fuel a nuclear arms race in Asia. The consequences will eventually come back to haunt India. The deal's suspension will slow down the process of India's strategic alignment with the US. At a time when the US is destabilising the world through its Global War on Terror, this slowdown is welcome, as would be the likely suspension of the proposed India-US Logistics Support Agreement, which will allow the reciprocal use of facilities for refuelling and servicing of military craft and communications between their armed forces. This doesn't argue against improved and balanced Indo-US relations, but only against a close strategic, but unequal, alliance between them. The new situation will doubtless change UPA-Left relations. But if the UPA, especially the Congress, recognises some basic ground-rules of coalition politics, that change could be for the better. It must accept that the Left is an ideologically driven force, whose commitment to some principles and aversion to certain policies must be respected to ensure its support. Even the BJP kept in abeyance -- albeit opportunistically -- controversial issues like the Ram temple, Uniform Civil Code and Article 370 to build the National Democratic Alliance. The Congress can do better by moderating some of its policies in good faith to secure the Left's support. The Indian public has inadvertently gained from the recent standoff, in the form of election-oriented aam admi measures like extension of the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme. Such measures must be broadened and deepened.