Nuclear deal – the story of a wasted effort

Nuclear deal – the story of a wasted effort
By H.K. Dua, who was recently in Washington

Only ceremonies are left. The Indo-US nuclear deal, which would have transformed the relationship between India and the United States in a big way, is on the ventilator, lying practically dead. And there is hardly any hope for its revival in the immediate future.

Lately, the US has been conveying to India in Washington and through American visitors to New Delhi that a green signal from India before the end of June can still save the deal.

Inquiries made in New Delhi, however, make it clear that the Indian Government now seems to have resigned itself to the fate the nuclear deal has come to meet, but regards it as a great opportunity missed.

The meeting, which the UPA government has planned for May 28 with the Left parties, is certain to be as unproductive as the earlier rounds of discussions with them. The May 28 parleys may perhaps be the last in the series the Manmohan Singh government will have to persuade the Left to give up its resistance to the nuclear deal.

The May 28 meeting had been set up so that the Left might agree to the idea of India negotiating nuclear safeguards agreement with the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency at least. A safeguards agreement with the IAEA would have cleared a major hurdle in the deal’s passage.

The safeguards agreement with the IAEA would have left only two more stages to cross. One is an agreement with the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group on the supply of nuclear fuel and material. This, in turn, would have pushed the deal into the lap of the US Congress, which is re-assembling in July.

The Bush Administration has been assuring India that once the agreement is arrived at with the IAEA, it will ensure a safe passage through Nuclear Suppliers’ Group and the US Congress meeting in July.

For the Bush Administration, the timetable is important. The July session of the US Congress may be the last where such an important piece of legislation can be passed. With the term of the Bush Administration coming to a close early next year, it will be difficult for it to persuade Congress to pass the necessary legislation in the lameduck session of Congress early next year.

It has taken almost three years for the nuclear deal to be chiselled into the present shape. Much diplomatic effort, legal expertise and the convincing of the scientific community was involved in the making of the deal.

It now looks like a story of a wasted effort.

It is not certain whether after the elections in the US and parliamentary polls in India due by May next year anyone will pick up the thread where it would be left by President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the two leaders who invested a lot of their political capital on the nuclear deal which, if finalised, would have far-reaching influence on the relations between a super-power and an emerging power of the 21st century.

Supporters of the nuclear deal in both India and the US are already feeling greatly disappointed over the way an opportunity and the gains of the deal are being allowed to slip out of hands.

The nuclear agreement signed in July 2005, if stamped by both the governments, would have amounted to India’s recognition as a nuclear weapons state, facilitated supplies of uranium for India’s nuclear reactors (which are already feeling the pinch), ensured generation of clean energy and allowed India to access advanced technology badly needed for sensitive areas like space, defence and nuclear reactors.

Despite the apprehensions voiced by the Left and the BJP, the government has been assuring that there is nothing in the agreement and related documents that seeks to deter India from making and testing more nuclear weapons needed for strengthening its deterrent capability.

For the US, India would have emerged as a major partner in Asia, particularly in South Asia, and an assured market for its companies and technology. Although India does not believe in alliances, warmer relations between India and the US would certainly have an impact on the emerging scenario in Asia.

Whatever the public assurances, the quality of the strategic partnership that was supposed to be underpinned by the nuclear deal would now get diluted.

Well-placed sources tell me that the FDI and the supply of sensitive hi-tech items needed by India have already begun slowing down.

The CPM’s opposition to the deal has been unambiguous from the beginning. The ink had not even dried on the agreement signed in July 2005 by Dr Manmohan Singh and George Bush, when the CPM had issued a statement in Delhi that the party would oppose the nuclear deal. Prakash Karat and other spokesmen of the Left have been relentlessly opposing the nuclear deal since then, using the weight of the 63 votes they have in the Lok Sabha.

For the Manmohan Singh government, opposition coming from the CPM and other Left parties may not have come as a surprise as the party is ideologically opposed to the US and any arrangement that might make India get too close to the superpower.

What, however, has puzzled the Manmohan Singh government is the BJP’s opposition to the deal on one ground or another. This is particularly so because the NDA government had held nearly a dozen round of talks with Strobe Talbott on the CTBT when it was in power and took the matters quite far. The BJP’s opposition to the deal is being seen as for the sake of opposing only.

It is highly unlikely that either the CPM or the BJP will give up opposition to the deal.

Neither party is mindful of the fact that having signed the agreement on behalf of the country, it may not be proper for the government and the country to pull back when a follow-up was needed in the IAEA, NSG and the US Congress.

The Indo-US nuclear deal, the nation’s most daring foreign policy initiative since Independence, is essentially becoming a victim of lack of consensus needed among the political parties and of compulsions of coalition parties.

Both India and the US are in the election mode. For George Bush, these are the last few months in power. And no one knows whether his successor at the White House, John McCain or Barack Obama, will pull the deal out of the limbo.

In India also, the post-election scenario is uncertain and no one can say at this stage whether the new government in New Delhi will have any enthusiasm for the deal.