Just when the historic India-US civil nuclear agreement of July 18, 2005, appeared poised for successful completion, with the consensus on the much contested text of the 123 Agreement having been arrived at in July, the situation looks very bleak in mid-August 2007.
The deal has become the proverbial red rag for the principal opposition parties and it now appears that the very survival of the United Progressive Alliance coalition led by Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh in its current form is at stake.
While there was an inherent inevitability about the breakdown between the Left parties and their UPA allies even at its very formation in 2004 when the National Democratic Alliance government was defeated, three determinants merit preliminary analysis at this stage.
What will be the implications of the current political impasse for India's long term politico-diplomatic, strategic-security and trade-technology interests? The short answer is "adverse."
By distorting and deliberately altering the contours of the debate, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Left parties are acting in a manner detrimental to India's interests in the early part of the 21st century.
In preventing Dr Singh from realising what still is a very prudent agreement, which will enable India in a holistic manner, the opposition stance will ensure a Pyrrhic victory that will keep India in fetters and in the long run -- subaltern to China in the Asian geo-political context.
The manner in which the current political debate is being contested indicates that the techno-strategic detail of the 123 Agreement is really a red herring. What is being bitterly contested is the nature of India's external orientation with the evolving strategic architecture of the 21st century -- and the relationship with the US in particular. The agreement has the potential to liberate India from the technology denial regimes and the politico-diplomatic ostracism that has been its cross to bear since May 1974 -- and in many ways admit India into the global 'panchayat' as a credible member.
This admittance was being facilitated by US President George Bush and from inflexible 'estrangement' over the nuclear nettle, the India-US bilateral relationship exuded signs of moving towards mutually beneficial engagement.
Clearly this policy shift is at complete variance with the ideological position of the Left parties for whom anti-Americanism is an article of faith. In the case of the BJP, the picture is more complex.
The NDA government deserves credit for its May 1998 initiative and the manner in which it restored relations with the Washington Beltway culminating in Bill Clinton;'s visit to Delhi in March 2000. Who could have accused the Indian Parliament of being anti-American when President Clinton received what must rank as the longest and most enthusiastic standing ovation when he addressed a joint session of Parliament at the time?
However, the BJP and the Left have now found common cause in stoking anti-Americanism in the Indian polity and while this is being interpreted as cynical pre-election posturing that is part of Indian politics, it is moot as to how much of this will translate into tangible electoral gains at the next general election -- even if it is held well before mid-2009.
Also read: Experts dissect the 123 Agreement
Thus what we are now witnessing is a degree of manipulative racism and prickly nationalism in the domestic Indian political discourse. Hence engaging with the USA is deemed suspect and denounced as being inimical to India's sovereignty -- even if the assertion is counter-factual. The sub-text of this articulation is that India is better off as part of an elusive Asian solidarity leading to global multi-polarity (to balance the USA) wherein China and perhaps Russia will play the lead role with India in a complementary role.
This is doubly ironic considering that over the last 50 years, China and the US have often acted in a manner that thwarted India's security and strategic interests to advance their own agendas. It merits recall that Beijing had little hesitation during the latter phase of the Cold War to tango with Washington against Moscow.
But that is the stuff of realpolitik and this abiding tenet of international relations appears to have been lost sight of in the current emotive Indian debate. The current global strategic grid has three major nodes of relevance -- the US, Russia and China. (The EU and Japan are already part of the US framework.) India has the potential to be part of this grid and it was this deeper intent that impelled the July 18 agreement -- with tacit support from Moscow.
An enabled India, free of technology denial fetters and strategic outcaste status will be a swing-state of considerable relevance in the 21st century and this would have made for some degree of credible multi-polarity to emerge at the global level.
And this profile would have allowed India to deal more effectively with all the other principal players on the global stage without being subaltern to anyone -- be it Washington or Beijing.
To that extent the highly visible nuclear strand of the July 18 agreement was both symbolic and substantive -- the former to herald India's strategic 'liberalisation', and the latter to ensure tangible gains such as the import of nuclear fuel etc.
If the opposition parties have their way and the deal is either delayed or scuttled, then the world at large will come to an irrefutable conclusion. India's political spectrum prefers to remain insular and a country of one billion people with multiple aspirations will not be part of the global management grid in a formal sense.
The Indian State will remain obsessed with more petty persuasions such as caste, reservations and communal issues. The world will move on and the major players will set the agenda -- be it on politico-strategic issues or the regulation of trade and technology and pressing energy and environmental challenges.
Paradoxically, what the world is seeking from India -- access to its middle-class market and the new technology-savvy human resource -- will flourish.
The Indian public that can afford it will not be denied the latest mobile phone and education cum employment opportunities abroad. Thus with the obstruction to the nuclear deal, the net result will be a stunted Indian State fending off technology denial regimes and placed below the global management hierarchy as a permanent 'outsider', while the Indian public will be increasingly drawn into the vortex of globalisation -- alas on unfavorable terms.
Some facts about India are inexorable -- as for instance its economic and technology potential.
The country is already a one trillion dollar economy and there is a sense that we do not need the nuclear deal.
This is misleading. India's energy needs have not been met either by hydro-electric potential or coal for 50 years. Unless there is unfettered access to technology, investment, markets and higher education, much of India's proven potential will be exploited at sub-optimal levels. The time-line for realising the various inter-locking procedures such as the IAEA protocol and NSG concurrence is very tight.
And above all, the concatenation of circumstances in the US is most favourable now. This may not be the case in early 2009 if there is a change of party in the White House.
On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Indian independence, one truism about Indian politics is self-evident. The manner in which Dr Singh is being pilloried over the India-US deal proves the adage that honesty, personal integrity, merit and the larger national interest will always be trumped by narrow self-interest in the Indian political arena.
Mera Bharat mahan.
The writer is a former head of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.