Contested, criticized but not undone

The US-India nuclear agreement, billed as a landmark strategic deal, was never going to have an easy sail. However the lack of open support for the deal is surprising. In Washington, the Bush administration has been the lone-ranger rallying support for this controversial deal. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is leading the Administration’s effort.

She has written in newspapers, appeared on television networks and given numerous interviews defending the deal. Finally, she went before the Congress in a marathon session to address its concerns.

In her testimony the only new argument that Rice has put before the two Houses was to ‘have faith’ in India. While she clearly stated that India would not cap weapons production unilaterally she insisted that others must have faith in India’s intentions; that India would not join an arms race.

It may be too early to determine the extent to which Rice’s testimony may have swung votes in favour of the deal. It remains a dynamic situation. Lobbying by the Administration, the Indian government and the Indian Americans is in full swing. This includes visits by senior Indian officials and ministers to Washington and organising India trips for high profile Congressmen like Edward Kennedy and Dennis Hastert, Speaker of the House. The Indian Americans are also raising money for election campaigns of US Congressman and senators in the hope that their voting patterns can be influenced. The Congressional voting on the Bill proposing India specific changes in the Atomic Energy Act 1954 is unlikely before August. The Bill must first clear the House and the Senate Foreign Relations Committees.

The Administration is keen that the voting takes place before the November elections of the House of Representatives and of one-third of the Senate. Republicans may lose the present majority in the House. The overall resistance to the deal however has revolved around five, somewhat overlapping issues.

One, domestically the Bush administration has adopted a personalised track as opposed to a process track on the deal. The Condoleezza Rice-Blackwell-Ashley Tellis troika essentially put the deal together, blessed by Bush’s backing. While the Congressmen were essentially presented a done deal, even the reservations of the bureaucracy were given a short shrift. For example, after the deal was signed in Delhi, the Washington Post reported that the evening before the deal was signed the US Under Secretary had told the daily in a telephone conversation that since there were outstanding issues, signing of the deal was not imminent. The deal was signed the next morning as the President chose to overrule all reservations.

Two, the non-proliferation lobby has effectively spread its message: That despite all its holes and flaws, a non-proliferation regime does exist. That with the stroke of a pen the US-India deal threatens to over-turn this entire non-proliferation regime. Also, even as the P-5 (nuclear states’ club) in a unified stand have taken Iran’s case to the UN Security Council, the Indo-US deal is seen as potentially undermining such unified anti-proliferation action. Many argue that the credibility of any future international action against proliferators could be undermined after the US-India deal goes through in its current form.

This deal is also likely to create deep division between a hitherto unified group of countries working against non-proliferation.

Three, internationally the Bush administration chose to not seek international support for the deal. As the deal now stands it would violate article 1 of the NPT which makes it incumbent on the NPT signatories to conduct nuclear transactions only with NPT signatory countries. Yet none of the members of the key members of Nuclear Suppliers Group were consulted. The IAEA was seen to be the only international body that has been supportive of the deal.

Four, significantly the US business community has not been able to transfer its strong advocacy of the deal to the US legislature. The US Chamber has been seeking support for the deal since it would open business prospects worth over a $100 billion for the US. Yet, as of now, not many within the Congress appear to have bitten into the economic benefits argument. Five, power seems to have trumped the ‘dollar power’ and the Democratic party’s generally pro-India ethos. As of now the Democratic Party has not ‘come through’ for India. Its historic fascination with the richness of the Indian culture and the Indian democracy has produced many high profile India supporters within the Democratic Party. Significantly, the former first families, the Clintons and the Kennedys have led the India-doters in the Democratic party.

In fact, it was the Democrats under Bill Clinton, who in 1999 began to lay the foundations of what is now being seen as a landmark US-India strategic alliance. Against this backdrop, the non-committal attitude of the Democrats is surprising. Clintons, Edward Kennedy and Joe Biden have opted for silence at this point. Perhaps, a key factor in keeping the Democrats from supporting the deal could be the 2008 elections. The party that is desperately seeking to return to the White House may have concluded that the path to the White House may have to be paved with an aborted US-Indo nuclear deal.

Will the aborted deal be the stick with which the Democrats would like to beat the Republicans at the polls? After all if the deal is being billed as the most significant strategic deal of the 21st century, the Bush administration’s failure to pull it through would equally be seen as a monumental failure. It would be considerably more damaging to the Bush administration than the Dubai Port deal.

A more recent issue has been India’s Iranian connection. The end February docking of an Iranian naval vessel at an Indian port has raised questions about Indian-Iranian military ties. Senator Barbara Boxer raised it vehemently demanding that a pre-condition to the deal must be that India forswears all military ties with Iran.

At the Congress, Condoleezza Rice’s defence of the deal was rooted in the paradox of a visionary realism. She wanted the US Congress to buy into the Bush vision of a US-India relationship that would define the twenty-first century global scene. Invoking realism she rejected the call for asking India to cap nuclear weapons production. That she argued was not possible without bringing China and Pakistan into the equation. She argued that the deal would put an end to India’s nuclear isolation by bringing 16 of its 22 nuclear reactors’ under IAEA safeguards. India, the US Secretary of State maintained, would never sign the NPT. Significantly this American understanding on the nuclear question vis-a-vis India approximates with Islamabad’s thinking about its own situation.

Meanwhile, for Condoleezza Rice it’s a hard-sell in the Congress. But with some amendments and IAEA-India safeguards in place, it is a possible sale nevertheless.