July 11, 2020
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The Nu Era

India-US nuclear deal stirred the torpid opposition parties into action, particularly the Left, and nearly led to a collapse of the UPA government

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The Nu Era
The Nu Era
Foreign policy rarely excites the political imagination of most Indians who, for the most part, can’t see the link between external relations and their daily lives. This year, however, foreign policy did excite debate, primarily because of the India-US nuclear deal which stirred the torpid opposition parties into action, particularly the Left, and nearly led to a collapse of the UPA government. Other than the nuclear deal, it was a quiet year in foreign policy, though not without moments of interest.

The conclusion of negotiations between the Indian and US governments on the nuclear deal required New Delhi to approach the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to help ratify the agreement. At this juncture, both the Left and the Right got to their feet to protest. The Left at least had an argument—an agreement with an imperialist power, no matter how advantageous, was unacceptable. The Right spoke in so many tongues it was difficult to fathom what case it was arguing, except that if it was in power it would "renegotiate" the deal.

In all the heat and dust over the nuclear deal, two crucial arguments were blurred or ignored. First, India’s nuclear programme is not doing well. It needs fuel supplies for existing reactors, advanced technologies for future generation reactors, and contact with nuclear science all over the world which it is currently denied. Only the deal will allow India to open the gates to all three and salvage the programme. Second, with the deal in its pocket, India should be in a position to end the generalised technology boycott it has withstood since 1974. This is vital if India is to meet its developmental challenges and be competitive globally.

Critics of the deal will argue that India should fix the deficiencies in the nuclear programme and raise its technological competence by dint of its own efforts. However, one thing we have learned since 1947 is that trying to do everything on your own does not work terribly well—it is too expensive, too slow, and there are no guarantees of success. As we have laboriously tried to reinvent every wheel, our competitors, piggybacking on the technology (and capital) of others, have passed us merrily by. From 1950 on, we saw Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Southeast Asia, and then China roar ahead. If we miss the nuclear deal, we may find ourselves lagging even further behind these and other countries. We must consider whether we can afford not to strike the deal, given what has happened over the past 60 years.

Will India-US relations collapse if the deal does not go through? No, because the relationship has got ballast—economic relations, political and strategic convergence, cultural and social linkages. The deal is not primarily—contra the worries of the Left—about the relationship with the US. It is about making good the technological deficiencies that have arisen over the past 60 years in a quick and dramatic way.

The Left has warned the UPA government that if it pursues the deal and signs an agreement with the IAEA, it should expect to go to the polls. If this happens, it will be the first time that a government in India will have fallen over foreign policy.

While the greatest attention has gone to the nuclear deal and relations with the US, India has wrestled with other external concerns. For the better part of 2007, things seemed to be chugging along quite nicely with China. While there were no dramatic advances in the border negotiations, there were no breakdowns either. In addition, at the end of the year, Beijing seemed to indicate support for the India-US nuclear deal and, during the climate negotiations in Bali, India combined with China to take on the developed countries.

The flurry of reports, over the past month, about Chinese incursions in Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh has therefore come as a bit of a shock. Did Chinese troops simply stray across the boundary? Is Beijing trying to send New Delhi a message? Or is it the other way round? The boundary is long and ill-defined, so straying is an existential reality we shall have to bear. However, the incursions may be Beijing’s way of saying that if India wants a stable relationship with China, it should not get too close to the Americans. Conversely, New Delhi may be playing up Chinese behaviour to suggest to critics of its US policy that a strong relationship with America is strategically necessary, whether you like it or not. At any rate, India-China relations have along the way ended on an uneasy note.

Relations with Russia, too, seem to have taken a sudden dip. The recent visit of Union external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee was marked by minor and major controversies, including alleged discourtesies by the Russians. The major worry, though, is that the defence relationship appears distinctly rocky. The Indian naval chief has been very public in his criticism of Russia’s constant tampering with prices and deadlines in relation to the delivery of the aircraft carrier that India purchased. At the same time, the Russians suggested that they would not be comfortable in selling India nuclear technology until India struck a deal with the US, IAEA and NSG.

Finally, India’s relations with its neighbours remained moribund. The NDA government more or less ignored the region, except Pakistan, in its six years at the helm, and the UPA has done little better. Even with Pakistan, the talks between the two sides have yielded little. There were hints that the two countries might sign an agreement on Siachen and that, on Kashmir, India might countenance troop reductions in the state. Both possibilities seem to have foundered on the opposition of the ministry of defence. On a long-term solution to the Kashmir quarrel, the two governments seem no further along, although there has been a frank exchange of ideas on how to bring the two parts of Kashmir closer.

To be fair to New Delhi, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have been preoccupied with their internal instabilities. Relations with India have been secondary to internal politics. Having said that, and in light of foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon’s comments mid-December on India’s worry about an arc of failed states around its borders, New Delhi will have to pay much greater attention to its role in the region and how to encourage greater stability without interfering in other people’s affairs. Next year could see dramatic changes around the periphery, and India may suddenly find itself ruing its inattention and lack of creativity in regional matters.

Kanti Bajpai is a foreign affairs analyst and headmaster of the Doon School

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