From the time the Indo-US nuclear deal was mooted in July 2005, there was almost instant opposition to it in both countries-with many in India, in the context of 30 years of adversarial relations with the US, predicting, as it went forward, step by step, that goalposts would be shifted by the US and that the deal would fail.
No one could have foreseen that India’s domestic compulsions would be a greater danger to the success of the deal than US positions and pressures. Indeed, the opponents of the deal in India appeared astonished at the success of the Indian negotiators in obtaining the concessions they did, when the so-called 123 Agreement was reached by both countries in August this year.
The parameters of what would be acceptable were laid out before Parliament by the Prime Minister before the start of the negotiations. Initially, it appeared that there was cautious approval of the work done by the negotiators. However, this did not last, and the deal was attacked from the Right and the Left.
The BJP led NDA, which had, in a sense, been the originator of the idea of a ‘ deal’ with the US, seemed to feel that the 123 Agreement jeopardized India’s nuclear weapons programme by placing a cap on the production of fissile material for weapons purposes, as 8 reactors additional to the ones already under IAEA safeguards, would be designated specifically for civilian purposes, and India’s freedom to conduct more tests would become constrained by the provisions of this Agreement.
The position of the Left was more ferocious and ideological: they clearly stated that this Agreement would draw India closer to the US which was unacceptable to them and that India’s independence in foreign policy making would be affected. The position taken by the Left was linked directly to its support of the government in Parliament.
At one point, it appeared that the government would bow to electoral pressures and put the deal into cold storage. Around the middle of this month, however, it appeared that the logjam might be shifted. A conciliation group was set up to sort out the issues between the Left and the UPA, and Brajesh Mishra, the National Security Adviser to the NDA government, in an interview to a national newspaper, stated quite explicitly that he was in favour of the deal, and indeed was apprehensive that it might not go through, provided he could be assured of the integrity and effectiveness of India’s nuclear weapons programme. The Prime Minister then personally called on both Vajpayee and Advani and presumably gave them the assurances needed.
In the meanwhile, the Left parties, for what appeared to be a ‘deal’ in itself, between discussions on Nandigram in Parliament and progress on the Indo-US deal, agreed that the government could start negotiations with the IAEA on safeguards to be applied to the facilities identified as civilian by India, the next step. However, both the Left and Right have continued to maintain their opposition to the deal.
The Indo-US nuclear Agreement, a technical agreement with major implications for India’s technical development and an essential opportunity for India’s energy choices, was a political gesture of goodwill by the US in the hope that it would lead to the normalization of relations between the two countries. Unfortunately, it is politics, of the domestic variety that appears to be governing its progress.
The deal has already been discussed in more detail than perhaps any other similar agreement with another country, but a brief recap of its contours would not be out of place. Three important and difficult steps have already been taken and three more remain before the Agreement can even be signed. India has proposed a plan that would separate its civilian facilities from non-civilian ones to be implemented in 2014, the US Congress has agreed to change US law that restricted civil nuclear cooperation with India, and a bilateral Agreement has been reached to promote such cooperation.
Now, the civilian facilities identified by India will be eligible for international cooperation, if India places them under IAEA safeguards, that is, accepts inspections by international inspectors who will ensure that no safeguarded material is diverted to India’s military programme. Then the 45 member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) has to agree that, notwithstanding the fact that India has not signed the NPT, is not a recognized nuclear weapon State, it will have access to international cooperation for civilian purposes.
Without the exemption, neither the Russians nor the French are willing to enter into any kind of nuclear cooperation with India.(It has incorrectly been claimed that the Prime Minister could have signed an Agreement with the Russians during his recent visit to Moscow which could have been implemented; the Russians have themselves clearly informed India that they would be unable to move on such an agreement unless the NSG approval was obtained. And it is only the US that can obtain that approval, with of course, the support of other friendly countries.) Finally, the US Congress and the Indian Cabinet will have to approve the entire process; only then can implementation begin.
The objections of the Left and Right in India need to be and, I believe, are being addressed. The issue of India’s strategic programme has specifically been dealt with in the 123 Agreement--there is a commitment that neither party will hinder or interfere with the military programmes of the other. If the US Congress adopts the 123 Agreement, this would become US law.
As regards the Left’s objections: it is inconceivable that India, which resisted international pressures when she was a weak country, would succumb to pressures when she is so much stronger. There is a lack of confidence in the country that it would not be able to retain its independence, which is so clearly misplaced that not even the Chinese share it! As for getting closer to the US, surely that is for the people to decide.
The issues, therefore are not substantive--they are political, as I suspect they are in the US as well. The non-proliferation lobby in the US with great influence on the Democrats, still infuriated at India’s independent nuclear programme, feels that India should not be rewarded for such independence.
There is no doubt that if the deal goes through, India will benefit greatly, economically, technologically and politically. At the same time, there will be expectations from India--expectations that could have implications for our foreign policy. The task ahead for any government will be to manage those challenges , and to calibrate our responses to serve our interests as we see them.
Arundhati Ghose was India's permanent representative/ ambassador to the United Nations. In 1996, she dramatically vetoed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty at the Conference on Disarmament, a step that some say would not have been taken without her. This piece was originally written for Outlook Saptahik