August 29, 2007

Not seeing a good deal

This article originally appeared in The Indian Express on August 29, 2007.

With no parliamentary détente in sight concerning the contentious US-India nuclear agreement, proponents of the deal in Washington are perplexed at its portrayal in India as a Faustian bargain. Philip Zelikow, counselor at the US state department during the unveiling of the nuclear deal in 2005 and a key American figure in its development, dismisses concerns harboured by Indian critics of the agreement. “India won a great deal,” Zelikow, now at the University of Virginia, told The Washington Post. “If [the Indians] back out, they are looking a gift horse in the mouth — there has never been a hidden agenda to try and control India’s foreign policy. Any problems with this deal are domestic and political posturing for a future election. Maybe this is something that India’s democracy and civil society has to work through.”

Many India supporters in the academic and policy-making communities have also noted how favourable the deal is to India. They are also concerned that its rejection could, on the whole, be a setback for India’s international reputation. The stagnation of the nuclear agreement in Parliament, they worry, will make key decision-makers in Washington and other major capitals question India’s readiness to be a great power.

Historically, the deal represents, with the possible exception of the Kargil War, the first major instance of the United States ‘tilting’ in favour of India, demonstrating a leniency that Indians craved for decades. Over the years, generations of American diplomats and policymakers faced accusations — sometimes deservingly so — of leaning towards Pakistan. Many of those same diplomats have expressed an element of frustration that the reversal, finally, of unfavourable American policy towards India, has not been accepted wholeheartedly by the Indian political establishment. In the words of one longtime India analyst, the controversy “leads people to wonder whether India is a country that cannot take yes for an answer.”

The US media has summarised and perpetuated similar views. “The brouhaha over the deal has surprised some nuclear analysts in Washington, partly because the Bush administration was widely perceived as having caved in to key Indian demands,” The Washington Post reported on Sunday. “To many Western observers, India already had the upper hand in the deal, a testament to its growing international influence.”

In the midst of the prevailing frustration, one group is privately pleased that the agreement may be scuttled at this juncture: the nuclear non-proliferation lobby. These critics have argued from the outset that the exception being made for India would adversely impact the global nuclear regime, and lobbied with little success to prevent the deal’s consummation, or at least limit its effects. Unable to stifle the deal in the White House or Congress, they watch gleefully as forces in India appear ready to do their work for them.

Important as the agreement is in the US, its future is being scrutinised as carefully, if not more so, in Paris. Favourable comments by the French Ambassador to India, Dominique Girard, should not come as a surprise, nor should statements suggesting that France has agreed to back India in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). France is among the countries most reliant on nuclear energy, which provides about 75 per cent of the country’s electricity and has one of the most advanced nuclear energy infrastructures.

French nuclear suppliers have at least one distinct advantage over their American competitors. As economist Swaminathan Aiyar explained in a recent article, no US supplier will likely take advantage of the nuclear agreement until India enacted a liability protection law. Consequently, state-owned Russian or French companies, which may be willing to supply nuclear equipment without liability protection, could be among the major direct beneficiaries of India’s integration into the civil nuclear mainstream.

Rumours abounded in the wake of the deal’s announcement two years ago that the French government — possibly former President Jacques Chirac himself — originally proposed the deal to the White House. Even if that were not the case, France was among the first countries to follow the American lead, with a similar civilian nuclear agreement announced during Chirac’s visit to Delhi in February 2006.

More surprisingly, Strobe Talbott, the former US Deputy Secretary of State, revealed that the French entertained the idea of a nuclear agreement with India as far back as 1998 or 1999, not even one year after the Pokhran-II tests which announced India’s intention to become an overt nuclear weapons power. “In addition to portraying themselves as more understanding of India’s security concerns than the Americans, the French dangled the possibility that India might, with French help, become eligible for nuclear assistance of the kind forbidden to non-NPT states,” Talbott wrote in his 2004 book Engaging India.

India’s hesitation at this juncture is of concern not just to the political, military, business and scientific establishments in the United States. The disappointment at India’s unenthusiastic response in Washington and Paris — not to mention Moscow and Canberra — will likely be surpassed only by the near universal bewilderment at India’s inability to see a good deal when it has one.