Against a backdrop of saris, elephant-shaped flower arrangements and bowls of lotus-blossom ice cream, President George W. Bush raised his water glass to Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister. “India and the United States are separated by half the globe. Yet today our two nations are closer than ever before.”
His toast, made last July in the State Dining Room at the White House, marked a moment of recognition by the US of India’s status as one of the world’s emerging great powers. For some diplomats involved, that day has already taken on the sepia hues of history, evoking comparisons with the strategic embrace of China by President Richard Nixon in 1972.
Behind the ritual of salutations and chilled asparagus soup were hours of tense negotiations overseen by Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state and the leading US architect of the transformation, in a suite of the Indian delegation at Washington’s Willard Hotel. The final text was agreed just 90 minutes before Mr Bush got to his feet at the banquet.
The July 18 statement sought to cement economic and other relationships. Yet it is the accord on civil nuclear co-operation that was both the most contentious and the most symbolic aspect of the rapprochement. Since then, however, talks on how to implement the agreement have stalled. Last week senior US officials travelled to New Delhi in an attempt to secure a breakthrough before Mr Bush departs on Tuesday for his first trip to India and only the second visit by a US president in more than two decades.
The fate of the nuclear talks threatens to overshadow his trip and future relations. Although American trade with India remains small at $25bn (£14bn, €21bn) a year, ranking it 22nd as a US trading partner, it is growing fast. The success of the visit will help determine the ability of US companies such as Wal-Mart Stores to open up one of the last great emerging markets.
“We made substantial progress in military-to-military and business-to-business [issues] but the big boulder in the room was India’s civil nuclear facilities. This is the only remaining impediment to a deep long-term strategic relationship,” says Robert Blackwill, a former US ambassador to India and advocate of closer ties. “The boulder was removed in principle on July 18. Now the issue is whether it can be removed in practice.”
The agreement hinged on India separating its military and civil nuclear facilities, so that inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency could gain access to the civil ones that would be eligible for international co-operation. With a credible separation plan from India, the Bush administration would take legislation to Congress and convince the 44 other countries in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which seeks to control the worldwide provision of sensitive materials and technology, of the need to make an exception for India – allowing it access to such supplies even though the country is not a signatory to the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
By the time of the reciprocal US presidential visit, the expectation was that these steps would comfortably have been completed. Signing the agreement would be the capstone of a strategic partnership that consigned to history residual tensions between two of the world’s largest democracies.
On both sides, the decision was based on calculated self-interest. Senior US officials point, in private, to the Nat-ional Intelligence Council’s “Mapping the Global Future” project as having spurred discussion. The emergence of China and India as global players, it argued, would transform the geopolitical landscape with an impact comparable to the rise of Germany in the 19th century and that of the US in the early 20th century.
Between the two Asian powers, there is little doubt where US affinities lie. An India that can emerge as a “geopolitical counterweight” to China and buttress of the Pax Americana is a persistent private theme of administration officials. Mr Bush, in a speech on India and Pakistan last week, noted that New Delhi’s “commitment to secular government and religious pluralism makes India a natural partner for the United States”.
“India is a rising global power with a rapidly growing economy,” says Nicholas Burns, US under-secretary of state for political affairs, who led last week’s talks in India. “Within the first quarter of this century, it is likely to be included among the world’s five largest economies. It will soon be the world’s most populous nation and it has a demographic distribution that be-queaths it a huge, skilled and youthful workforce. India’s military forces will continue to be large, capable and increasingly sophisticated.”
That consciousness of India’s significance is echoed in the American private sector. Ron Somers, president of the US India Business Council, notes that a year ago there were 90 companies in his lobbying organisation. Now there are 170.
For India, the compulsions are in some ways different. The principal urge is the need for international recognition of its status as a great power and of its claims to permanent membership of an expanded United Nations Security Council. Being seen as a legitimate nuclear power and casting off the quasi-pariah status it has endured since its first test of nuclear weapons in 1974 – followed by further weapons tests in 1998 – is central to that goal.
The psychological boost will help India at last end what it calls its “hyphenation” with Pakistan. “The momentum in our relationship with the US has been important for how we are perceived by the rest of the world and has had a positive ripple effect on other relationships,” says a senior official in India’s ministry of external affairs. “The hyphenation is now more with China. In a few years’ time India won’t be able to see Pakistan in the rear-view mirror.”
Like the US, however, India is also looking to take out insurance against China, with which it has an unresolved border dispute and fought a war in 1962. Just as India needed a substantive security relationship with the Soviet Union during the cold war to provide a counterbalance to Pakistan’s alliances with the US and China, so it now looks to the US, argues C. Raja Mohan, an Indian political analyst, as a “hedge against the Chinese juggernaut as it rolls across Asia”.
Indeed, in reaching the July 18 agreement, both governments had run well ahead of their public and urgently needed to secure a domestic political consensus behind the policy departure. And by neglecting to take on the most vocal opponents of the deal, each allowed powerful lobbies bent on scuppering it to unite and frame the terms of debate. Ronen Sen, India’s ambassador to the US, says the debate has been “hijacked over here by non-proliferation theologians and in India by those rallying to the banner of self-reliance”.
In the US, the fiercest reaction has come from those concerned about the dangers of creating an exception for India and the impact that would have on the NPT regime. Mr Blackwill identifies two competing approaches. Under the first, India would be treated as a standard nuclear weapons state, changing its “reputation as a renegade and pariah, which the US had done much to create”. The second is that of the non-proliferation lobby, which wants to cap, reduce and then end India’s nuclear weapons programme – using the July 18 agreement to put so many facilities under IAEA safeguards that the country could not meet its weaponry wishes.
The first approach was at the core of the outline pact to transform the US-India relationship but, once the deal was announced, some analysts say non-proliferation advocates inside the administration and outside have tried to shift the agreement from paradigm one to paradigm two.
That shift was possible because
senior US officials involved in the agreement – such as Ms Rice – failed to follow through with keynote speeches supporting India and became sidetracked by events in Iraq and elsewhere. Mr Bush in his State of the Union address last month referred to India just once, and even then disobligingly, alluding to “new competitors like China and India”.
In India, the deal has triggered the biggest foreign policy crisis since Indira Gandhi produced the fait accompli of the 1971 treaty of peace and friendship with the Soviet Union. The furore reflects deep hostility to the idea that India might sacrifice its standing as an independent nuclear power and its role as spiritual guardian of the non-aligned tradition on the altar of a strategic partnership with the US.
The bloc of communist parties that provides the government with its majority in parliament has proved the largest obstacle to Mr Singh’s ambitions. Facing elections in the left’s core bastions of Kerala and West Bengal, both of which have large Shia Muslim populations, the left reacted furiously to Washington’s clumsy linkage of congressional support for the nuclear deal with the way India chooses to vote on the issue of Iran in the IAEA.
With Prakash Karat, leader of the CPI (M), one such party, promising the US president a “welcome so warm he will feel the heat”, plans for Mr Bush to address a joint session of parliament have been dropped. The left hopes to muster a demonstration outside parliament on the first day of the visit, in the first mass action against the government on a non-economic issue since the formation of the United Progressive Alliance coalition in May 2004.
Officials pushing the US deal console themselves by saying that Indian governments do not fall on questions of foreign policy. Few believe the left is prepared to withdraw its support from the government and bring the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party back to power. But leftwing hostility to the deal, denounced as an abandonment of India’s “traditional anti-imperialism”, has certainly narrowed Mr Singh’s margin for manoeuvre.
A second source of opposition to the nuclear deal has come from the country’s atomic establishment. One after another, its secretive scientists have emerged to warn against the loss of independence. Anil Kakodkar, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and secretary of India’s Department of Atomic Energy, accused the US of “moving the goalposts” set down in the July agreement.
Mr Kakodkar, who played a key role in the 1974 “peaceful nuclear explosion”, warned that India’s credible minimum deterrent would be in jeopardy if it accepted the inclusion of the country’s next-generation fast-breeder reactors – which will be decades in development but will eventually produce plutonium that can be used both in bombs and for producing energy – on the list of civilian facilities that would become subject to international safeguards.
This is a potential deal-breaker. As India has a formal no-first-strike policy, its deterrent consists of a capability to respond overwhelmingly after sustaining a nuclear attack. Non-proliferation enthusiasts on Capitol Hill, who believe that India already maintains weapons-grade plutonium sufficient for 60-80 warheads, argue that fissile material produced by the fast-breeder reactors could be needed for military uses only if India significantly increased the size of its nuclear arsenal. They say it should be listed as civilian and made subject to inspection.
Decades-old doubts about American reliability explain the stand-off. After India’s 1974 nuclear experiment, both the US and Canada abrogated bilateral agreements to supply fuel to two reactors, despite New Delhi’s protestations that, as a non-NPT signatory, it had not violated international obligations. India’s scientists are proud of the way they rose to the challenge of developing a nuclear programme in isolation.
“While India has never been averse to international co-operation, its experience [of that] has shown it to be highly undependable and subject to humiliating restrictions, embargoes and denials . . . on the flimsiest of pretexts,” says A.N. Prasad, former director of the country’s Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. Indian scientists did not enjoy struggling against heavy odds to develop complex technologies and should never again depend on imports.
Whether a viable compromise can emerge will depend on both sides reviving the spirit of the agreement seven months ago and its longer-term strategic intent. Last July Mr Singh, in his own toast, said: “We have all grown up learning the story of the unfinished voyage of Christopher Columbus. Setting sail to reach India, he discovered America. I now invite the people of America to complete the voyage of that great explorer.”
Given the cold shoulder he will get from India’s atomic scientists and some of its politicians, Mr Bush may regret having accepted that invitation.
Capitol Hill awaits the small print
When a civil nuclear agreement with India was announced at the end of the previous bilateral summit last July, the reaction in Congress was one of surprise. “Members don’t like the deal. But what they were upset about more is a lack of consultation. Their feelings were hurt,” says George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment, a think tank.
Congressional views matter because Congress must vote before the US can engage in any nuclear co-operation with India. Legislators will not vote directly on how India separates its nuclear facilities. But they need to be confident in such a plan before they back a co-operation agreement under the Atomic Energy Act.
Members are paying increasing attention to the rise of India. The Indian and Indian-American caucus is the largest foreign-affairs caucus in Congress, with 180 members. Yet most Congressmen are passively awaiting an administration proposal on how it wants to change the law. “There is a degree of interest but it is not consuming,” says Joe Wilson, former co-chair of the caucus.
Senators Max Baucus and John Kerry, who visited India this year, back the deal in principle but say the key is India’s separation plan. “There are no big advocates but opposition is muted because it is so arcane,” says Mr Perkovich.
The second biggest group, who have asked the toughest questions about the deal, are members who fear watering down of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Senators Joseph Biden and Richard Lugar express doubts but have not yet threatened to derail the agreement.
For a third group, any vote to allow civil nuclear co-operation with India will be tied to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. “There is a quid pro quo in international relations,” says Tom Lantos, a Democrat congressman. “If we are turning ourselves into a pretzel to accommodate India, I want to be damn sure that India is mindful of US policies in critical areas such as US policy towards Iran.”
With midterm elections in November, coming out against India could be a tough call. There are 2.2m Indian Americans in the US and they live largely in Republican districts, says Mr Wilson. Business interests are preparing a lobbying campaign to influence Congressional opinion. The US India Business Council has hired Patton Boggs, a lobbying group, to help back any nuclear deal. Until that proposal emerges, however, debate remains on hold and Congressional opinion has not been tested.