Has the Manmohan Singh ministry's nuclear deal with the United States become a gun at India's head? Or is it just another case of this administration permitting India to become a punching-bag for other nations?
I am writing this from Washington, DC, very late on the day when the United States Senate was supposed to give the green signal to the bill as part of its 'lame duck' session. It says something of President Bush's diminished clout that even his fellow Republicans, many of whom have nothing left to lose, are unwilling to push his desired legislation through.
They have already smacked the White House in the face by denying him the pleasure of taking a trade pact as he leaves for Vietnam. And the India bill was postponed because a Senator insisted on taking up an agriculture bill -- after discussing which so many Senators drifted away that there wasn't a quorum in the house. (See, it isn't just Indian MPs who find better things to do than to actually attend the House when it is in session!)
Back in April, when ministers in Delhi were still gung-ho about pulling off a foreign policy coup, I wrote: 'The mood in Washington seemed to be that the American Senate might still, on balance, give its nod to the nuclear pact with India. But nobody was willing to say how long the process might take.' Seven months later, we were still awaiting the Senate's approval. (And the mandarins in Delhi are much less effusive!)
As far as I can tell, there is no strong opposition to the nuclear deal but there is no great support for it either. The Jewish lobby, as I wrote last time, was trying to use the passage of the bill through the United States Congress as a lever to force India's hand over Iran (perceived as a long-term threat to Israel).
The attempt at the time was to prevent India from going ahead and signing the gas deal with Iran; while the Jews have nothing against India per se they are opposed in principle to anything that might strengthen an enemy of Israel.
This delay has given India's actual foes a chance to marshal their forces. I refer of course to the neighbours with whom the gods have chosen to curse us. Neither Pakistan nor China is coming out openly against the deal negotiated by the Bush and Manmohan Singh teams.
They tried that tack when the pact first became public knowledge, and it didn't work then. So this time the opposition is subtler, and they are attacking from the flanks.
Pakistan is said to be lobbying Senators on the ground that the nuclear deal with India is bad on principle. It is trying to persuade everyone that the United States should act on a broad set of principles rather than negotiate on a case by case basis.
Translation: 'Give every nuclear state the same privileges and exemptions as those granted to India!'
Meanwhile, China is choosing to exercise its influence in places that might be more pliable than the United States. I understand from one American interlocutor that Norway might be the chosen cat's paw in this game.
Why Norway? Well, that Scandinavian nation happens to be one of the 45 countries in the Nuclear Suppliers' Group (a body that, incidentally, was set up as a direct response to India's first nuclear test).
Let us understand that restrictions on civilian nuclear technology will not be automatically lifted even after the US Senate gives the green signal to the Bush-Manmohan Singh deal. It is up to each member state of the Nuclear Suppliers' Group to decide whether it accepts or denies export applications to India. And Norway has in the past been used to block the transfer of dual-use technology to Israel, which makes it the most likely tool against India too. (Of course, it is an open secret that Israel went ahead and built nuclear weapons anyway -- without suffering any adverse consequences thanks to the power of its lobby in the United States.)
India might thus be stuck in a situation where the treaty is dead in the water even if it gets through the US Senate. I found it significant that Prime Minister John Howard of Australia was absolutely noncommittal about supplying India when he visited Delhi -- and that was after President Bush had signed the pact with India. Who is to say that Norway's opposition might not prove to be the thin end of a very large wedge?
All this, of course, is based on the assumption that the deal wins Congressional approval. But nobody seems to know in what shape the pact shall emerge, having gone through the grind of the American legislative process.
There are anywhere between nine and 18 proposed amendments, following which some sort of an accord has to be reached between the House of Representatives and the Senate. (I have said it before and I say it again, it is utterly shameful that the Indian Parliament has been given no say in the deal unlike its American counterpart!)
India desperately needs to upgrade its nuclear power plants. At the end of the day, there is no more economical way to satisfy the growing needs of the Indian economy. Given the record of the defence-related research establishment -- missiles exploding in mid-air, a battle-tank that has left the Army fuming, a light combat aircraft that is not ready after over a decade's delay -- I must reluctantly agree that infusions of foreign technology are needed pretty quickly. (The governmental scientific bureaucracy has, of course, held a stranglehold on nuclear research in India.)
The incoming Congress, dominated by the Democrats, is not necessarily inimical to India. But several of the members, particularly those elected for the first time, have strong protectionist sentiments. They may not care a toss for the arcana of nuclear pacts but they can, and do, care about the outsourcing of jobs to India. And that will make it just a bit harder to push through legislation that favours India.
There is, I am told, every chance that the Senate will give the green signal to the nuclear deal by the time you read this. But nobody is willing to come out and say in what shape -- and with what conditions attached to it -- the agreement shall emerge.
By reading Indian papers over the Internet I understand that the Pakistani foreign secretary has been given the chance to lecture India on its human rights record in Kashmir while visiting Delhi -- a fallout of the prime minister's commitments to General Musharraf in Havana.
I also read in shock and anger that the Chinese ambassador is claiming that Arunachal Pradesh is Chinese territory -- even as the Manmohan Singh ministry rolls out the red carpet for the Chinese president. Is it too much to hope that the nuclear deal with President Bush shall not turn out to be another foreign policy 'masterstroke' that has gone sour?