US Election Verdict Imperils India Nuclear Deal

09 November 2006
The Democratic Party’s strong showing in US Congressional elections has enlarged the question-mark which hangs over Washington’s nuclear cooperation deal with India, writes Bidwai.

NEW DELHI, Nov 9 (IPS) - The Democratic Party's strong showing in the United States Congressional elections has enlarged the question-mark which hangs over Washington's nuclear cooperation deal with India. But no major change in U.S.-India relations appears to be on the cards.

The controversial nuclear cooperation agreement was signed in July 2005 by President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Under its terms, the U.S. would effectively "normalise" India as a de facto nuclear weapons-state (NWS) and resume civilian nuclear commerce with it, which has stood suspended since India's first nuclear test in 1974.

The deal makes a unique exception for India, which is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and which conducted five nuclear weapons test in 1998.

In return for this special treatment, India would put 14 of its 22 nuclear power reactors (operating and under construction) under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards and also secure approval for the deal from the IAEA and the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers' Group. India can continue to produce fuel for nuclear weapons in its non-safeguarded facilities.

The deal was cleared by the foreign relations committees of both chambers of the U.S. Congress, which formulated enabling legislations. The House of Representatives passed the relevant Bill by a 359 to 68 vote last July.

However, the Senate is yet to vote on its own Bill. In its last session, just before the election recess, it failed to clear it because the Democrats moved 19 amendments which could not be voted on.

Now, both Chambers are likely to meet for what is called a "lame duck" session next week, with their existing members participating. The Bush administration has promised to try to get the Senate Bill passed as early as Friday next week.

The administration is at pains to emphasise its commitment to the deal. U.S. ambassador to India David C. Mulford in a media briefing on Thursday stressed that the election results do not mean that the deal is off: "It still has a chance."

"But it is by no means certain that the deal-related Bill will be taken up by the Senate next week", says Chintamani Mahapatra, Professor of American Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University here. "And if it is not passed next week, the legislation is as good as dead."

Usually, the lame duck session passes urgent money Bills and does not take up substantive legislation. Besides, other legislations are competing with the India-specific Bill for the top place in the Senate agenda, including one which permits full trade relations with Vietnam, which Bush is due to visit soon.

"The most important cause for a possible delay in clearing the Bill is that the Democrats may be unwilling for domestic reasons to hand an easy diplomatic victory to Bush," adds Mahapatra. "Relations between the Democrats and Republicans have turned extremely fractious over the Iraq war and domestic policies."

If the legislation is not cleared next week by the Senate, then the planned reconciliation of the two Bills, and their passage by the full Congress, will not go through.

In that case, the deal will return to the drawing-board. And the entire legislative process will have to re-start from scratch.

"That puts the issue in an area of great uncertainty", says Muchkund Dubey, a former foreign secretary (chief of the diplomatic service) of India. "For, it is by no means clear that the Democrats strengthened by their full control over Congress will agree to the same terms and language as the original Bills."

The Democrats, say India's Foreign Office sources, recently assured New Delhi that they would move no more than 10 amendments during the lame-duck session. But it is not clear that they would stick to that commitment.

Already, the existing Senate Bill contains clauses and language that New Delhi finds unpalatable, including a requirement for annual certification from the President that India is observing nuclear restraint and not diverting nuclear material to military uses.

The Bush administration had hoped that the reconciliation process would lead to a dilution of these conditions in a Senate-House conference committee. But after the Congressional elections, "the administration would be lucky to be able to retain the clauses," holds Dubey.

If the deal goes back to a fresh debate in Congress, its terms could well be transformed in keeping with the Democrats' stronger adherence to nuclear non-proliferation. Although India would probably still not be asked to make tougher commitments, the Manmohan Singh government will find it difficult to sell the deal as a major diplomatic coup.

The Senate legislation has evoked strong negative reactions from India's political opposition.

The Left parties, whose support is vital for the Singh government's survival, oppose any change in the "original goal-posts" set by the Bush-Singh agreements of July 2005 and this past March. And the opposition, right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party is even more hostile to any change in the agreement's terms.

New Delhi will find it near-impossible to renegotiate the deal. But it has no fall-back or fall-soft options. "It's either a win-win situation for the U.S. and India, or lose-lose one for both; it cannot be a win-lose situation," says Mohapatra.

The U.S. Congress is not the only obstacle the deal will have to overcome. The Nuclear Suppliers' Group (NSG) too has to clear it. At least some of its 45 member-states, including the Nordic countries, Ireland, New Zealand and, above all, China are known to have reservations about it.

India has been lobbying individual NSG members. It also made a presentation on the deal before the NSG in mid-October in Vienna. But the NSG would probably wait for the U.S. Congress vote before deciding.

"The nuclear deal is only one part of the India-U.S. relationship," says Dubey. "Even if it is delayed or falls through, the overall thrust of U.S. policy towards India is unlikely to change. There is bipartisan support in Washington for a special strategic relationship with India. The two leaderships increasingly see their interests as congruent, not least vis-à-vis containing China."

There is one respect in which things might change somewhat. If the departure of Donald Rumsfeld as U.S. defence secretary leads to a major shift of U.S. plans for Iraq, India might once again come under pressure to train or assist Iraq's military and police forces.

On two occasions in the past, India was on the verge of sending troops to Iraq to assist U.S. forces. The move fell through because of its immense domestic unpopularity.

However, with Rumsfeld's resignation, there is likely to be some cooling off of the enthusiasm with which India's strategic planners welcomed the so-called ‘Revolution in Military Affairs' involving the use of "smart" weapons, and a technological "transformation" in war-fighting, which the former defence secretary advocated.

The "smart" weapons did not prove particularly effective during the last two Gulf wars. (END/2006)

This article was originally published by Inter Press Service (Copyright 2006)