India-US nuclear deal - time for a pause (Comment)

August 28th, 2008 - 2:33 pm ICT by IANS  

The India-US nuclear deal is in trouble - serious trouble. Contrary to Indian expectations, the NSG did not give it clearance at last week’s meeting in Vienna. A large number of NSG members, many of them close allies of the United States, tabled amendments that would have the effect of bringing India into the NPT and the CTBT regimes through the back door. The US is reworking the draft in preparation for another meeting of the NSG next week, but the draft has not yet been shared with India. Instead of personally reporting back to the political leadership, the Foreign Secretary was rushed to Washington after the NSG fiasco. He is camping in Washington for the last week, while Richard Boucher tries to soothe ruffled feathers in India.

Why did this happen? Even the most ardent drumbeaters of the government have been forced to admit that the US hasn’t kept its end of the July 18, 2005 bargain. India is seen as having been led down the garden path or as having been double-crossed. So what’s new? This happens all the time in relations between states.

Why blame the US if you are naïve enough to swallow US administration statements made to you in private while ignoring what they say to their own Congress and public? The prime minister has indeed been led up the garden path, not just by the Americans but also by his own coterie of advisers who have been putting a gloss on all the systematic deviations by the American side from the fine balance of the July 18, 2005 understanding. Even as the Americans shifted the goalposts, we pretended that in fact they had not - be it the Hyde Act, the 123 Agreement or the IAEA Safeguards Agreement.

Why didn’t the US exert sufficient effort to get the NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group) members on board? Was the US taken by surprise at the NSG meeting? Or was this an act of deliberate sabotage by the US that put up smaller NSG members to do its dirty work? What was the US hoping to achieve? One possibility is that the US thought that it could achieve its optimal non-proliferation agenda through the NSG since it had to compromise on some aspects in the 123 Agreement. In this way, the 123 Agreement stood a better chance of being passed by the US Congress.

Another possibility is that the Bush administration realises that it cannot get the 123 Agreement through the US Congress next month. Gary Ackerman has said that there’s not enough time. If the US Congress is to waive the mandatory 30-day period for which the bill has to lie in Congress before it is taken up for consideration then it is no longer going to be an up-or-down vote.

In such a situation it will be open to the US Congress to introduce amendments. That would effectively kill the 123 Agreement. The United States would also be concerned that an NSG exemption for India without a 123 Agreement cleared by the US Congress would leave the field free for other nuclear suppliers, notably the French and the Russians, to snap up contracts while the US makes up its mind.

This is a case of brinksmanship by the US administration, which seems to have concluded that, having gone out on a limb on the India-US nuclear deal, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh cannot now step back and will have no option but to swallow all the new conditions being added on to the NSG exemption. Alternatively, the US administration is convinced that it just cannot get the deal through the present US Congress and therefore it is best to break it at the NSG stage, where the opprobrium would be borne by India, rather than in the US Congress, which would put the Bush administration in an embarrassing position.

It is a bit like the WTO talks collapsing on the relatively minor issue of the Special Safeguards Mechanism (SSM), where the spin given out is that India was the deal-breaker. The truth in this case is that had there been agreement on the SSM, the US would have had to tackle the more difficult issue, from its point of view, of cotton subsidies.

It is time that the prime minister reflects over the present situation from a political perspective, forgetting for a moment about his ego and the legacy he will leave behind as prime minister. It is clear that he won’t be able to present this deal as a personal triumph. On the contrary, he could end up being regarded as the prime minister who sold the country’s interests. Now is not the time for bravado.

It is time to eat humble pie. Perhaps then he and the government can salvage some of their tattered self-respect. Otherwise, a flawed deal will only generate feelings of betrayal and mistrust that will undo all the good work done in the last few years to bring India and the US closer.

It is time we told the Americans that we are not ready to sign the deal at this time. There is no need for the second NSG meeting next week. The country needs to reflect over and digest what is being offered. Let there not be a repeat of July 18, 2005 when the scientists were hustled into agreeing to something they hadn’t fully considered. Let us wait for new governments in both the US and India. Let us press the pause button.

(Rajiv Sikri is a former secretary in India’s Ministry of External Affairs. He can be contacted

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