The July 2005 India-US civilian nuclear cooperation agreement is now on hold and it is expected that the October 22 meeting between the government and the Left parties will provide a more definitive indicator about the fate of the 'nuke deal'.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in a more reflective comment wistfully noted that 'there is life after' even if the deal does not move towards fruition. Yes, for sure India will march on but in an increasingly isolated manner and it will be a lonely and seemingly tarnished perch that India will inhabit when the leit motif of the 21st century is globalisation and greater interaction among major economies and knowledge gene pools.
If this deal is either inordinately delayed thereby subjecting it to 'slow death', or rejected for reasons that are more ideological and anti-American, it will be a grave setback for India's long term strategic interests in the 21st century. The central feature of the July 2005 agreement is not about nuclear energy or nuclear weapons -- it is about removing the nuclear commerce and related technological denial regimes placed on India since 1974. The extension is that the removal of these US-led fetters will enable India to deal with the external world in a more equitable manner a freedom it currently does not have. India's sovereignty that was shrunk in May 1974 at US initiative will gradually be restored.
Thus failure or inordinate delay in taking forward the deal, by way of engaging with the Internation Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Suppliers Group will actually result in keeping India's sovereignty shrunk and eroded the very objective that the Left parties are claiming to advance!
The best case scenario in the current political impasse is for the A B Vajpayee-L K Advani combine to step in and arrive at a grand consensus with the government over the deal. It may be recalled that the rapprochement with the US began post May 1998 with the National Democratic Alliance in power and both the principal political parties the BJP and the Congress are agreed in wanting to have a closer relationship with the US and, more importantly, to get over the estrangement with Washington related to the nuclear issue.
Irrespective of whether the general elections are held now due to the Left withdrawing support to the Congress, or in 2009 as per schedule, whoever occupies the Indian prime minister's chair (in all probability a BJP or Congress leader leading a fragile coalition) will have to deal with the occupant of the White House.
And the most undesirable exigency for the bilateral India-US relationship would be a return to the bitter tenor of the Clinton years when the US was determined to 'roll-back, cap and eliminate' India's nascent strategic nuclear profile. And if the nuclear deal is scuttled, then the possibility that the US will revert to its earlier anti-India posture on nuclear matters is almost certain.
Interaction with Washington's strategic community suggests that there is muted glee among US non-proliferation zealots who are grateful that what they could not achieve in the US Congress -- aborting the July 2005 agreement -- has been given to them on a platter by one section of the Indian legislature. They are equally determined that once this moment of Bush radicalism passes and a Democrat occupies the White House it will be back to business as usual with India meaning that pressure will mount to bring India back into the nuclear corral.
Consequently India's strategic anxiety will grow since it will be the permanent 'outsider' in the major power grid and denied access to nuclear fuel and contrary to popular perception, neither Russia nor France will be able to step in. The vision of harnessing thorium will remain a mirage and India's overall energy security options will be adversely affected, thereby resulting in a negative impact on economic growth. India dimming may become the appropriate metaphor!
Thus we will have a defensive India which will have less than stable relations with both the US and China and at the end of the day, India may end up with an isolated civilian nuclear programme that is denied access to the global loop. And prickly nationalism may lead to excessive sensitivity over the weapon program which will further alienate India from the dominant global community. Thus instead of becoming part of the management of the 21st century's nuclear club, unambiguously hinted at by IAEA Director General Dr Mohamed El Baradei recently, India paradoxically may well become its central problem. Surely this is not the scenario that the Congress and the BJP want for India in the years ahead.
It is this long term strategic assessment that should encourage the BJP to set personal pique aside and offer support to the beleaguered Congress party so that the abiding national interest is not sacrificed for short-term political gains. In the event such perspicacity is demonstrated, A B Vajpayee's stature as a statesman will be enhanced immeasurably
The writer is a former head of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.