Flogging a Dead Agreement

The Indian government suddenly finds itself under intense and mounting U.S. pressure to complete a nuclear agreement during the present U.S. administration. “We don’t have all the time in the world,” Nicholas Burns bluntly said this month. One of the chief architects of the agreement and the U.S. undersecretary for political affairs, Burns was referring to the India-specific agreements with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and change of rules at the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) that are necessary for the export of nuclear plants and equipment to India. He reminded the Indians that “this is an election year” in the USA and hoped “very much that this process can now be completed.” David C. Mulford, U.S. ambassador in New Delhi, similarly pressed for the conclusion of the agreement during the Bush administration. He suggested that it is almost “now or never” for New Delhi to get behind such a deal before non-proliferation groups force additional conditionalities.

U.S. proponents of the deal conspicuously mention the U.S. nuclear industry’s prospects for trade with India. According to the Indian daily Telegraph reporting from Washington, “The administration’s deal makers with India have been gripped by a sudden sense of desperation that their calendar for orders worth billions of dollars in nuclear plants may be altered by the compulsions of domestic politics in India.”

All this pressure coming from Washington, however, speaks more to desperation than anticipation of victory. The U.S.-India nuclear deal is likely on its last legs.

Rigorous Timetable

When they met Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on February 20, three influential U.S. senators set an ambitious timetable. “India must complete all necessary steps to conclude the nuclear deal by July-end to ensure that the U.S. Congress approves it before the presidential election,” they said. After meeting the Prime Minister, Senators Joseph Biden, John Kerry, and Chuck Hagel told the press that it was “highly unlikely” that the next president would be able to present the deal in the present format.

The Indian government will not likely be able to adhere to this timetable even if it reaches a political decision to complete the procedures for the deal. And such a political decision is nearly impossible. The leftist parties, on whose support the survival of the government depends, have made it clear that they will withdraw support if the deal is actually set into motion. The leftist parties have agreed only to the government going ahead with negotiations for the safeguards agreement with the IAEA, subject to their approval of the draft. If the government manages to cross the IAEA hurdle, it then has to win an exemption from the NSG before it can go to the U.S. Congress.

Five days before the visit of the U.S. senators, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the United States would support an exemption in the NSG only if it is “consistent” with the obligations spelled out for India in the Hyde Act. “We will support nothing with India in the NSG that is in contradiction to the Hyde Act,” Rice said.

The Hyde Act

The Hyde Act contains several restrictive clauses. For instance, if India tests a nuclear weapon, the United States will cease all civilian nuclear cooperation. There are restrictions on the reprocessing of spent fuel. The Hyde Act also provides for a multilayered system of monitoring of reactors. The United States insists that India agree to these conditions before getting a waiver from the NSG. But India has said that it will accept only an “unconditional” waiver from the NSG, “We want a clean exemption for India without any condition,” reiterated Anil Kakodkar, chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Commission, when the U.S. senators were in New Delhi.

Rice’s statement exposes the Indian government’s claim that the Hyde Act has no bearing on India. “Whatever is said in the Hyde Act is not binding on us,” Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherji told the Indian parliament in August 2007. “How they deal with this is their problem.”

The Hyde Act has two principal objectives: to bring India back into the Non-Proliferation Treaty and to bring Indian foreign policy in line with that of the United States. As former Special Secretary in India’s Ministry of External Affairs Rajiv Sikri points out: “India’s growing political and material support is seen as a ‘new and strategic opportunity to advance U.S. goals.’ Iran gets a specific mention with the U.S. expecting India’s ‘full cooperation to dissuade, isolate and if necessary to sanction and contain Iran.’”

More than Just Nukes

The U.S.-India nuclear deal is not just about geopolitics and non-proliferation. Nicholas Burns put the nuclear deal in perspective when he described it as the “symbolic and centerpiece of the new partnership.” He explained U.S. objectives in the partnership with India: “Our first priority is to give governmental support to the huge growth in business between the Indian and American private sector.” Burns thus made it clear that the deal was not primarily about nuclear energy. Its first priority was on the economic front and largely in the interests of U.S. corporations in the energy field. He also said the deal has huge implications in defense cooperation between the two countries.

When details of the India-U.S nuclear agreement were presented to the media simultaneously in New Delhi and Washington in July 2007, Indian officials maintained that the agreement was stand-alone and had no implications beyond nuclear energy. But Nicholas Burns in his written statement stated that after the deal “if we look down the road in the future, we are going to see far greater defense cooperation between USA and India.” The nuclear deal was thus linked to defense deals.

Consider also the proximity in time between military and nuclear agreements. The Framework Agreement on Defense Cooperation signed on June 28, 2005 by then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield and then-Indian Defense Minister Pranab Mukherji confirmed that India accepted fully the conditions stipulated by the United States to “help India become a major world power in the 21st century.” It was signed just 20 days before the much-heralded Joint Statement of President Bush and Prime Minister Singh initiating the nuclear deal. The defense agreement was apparently the necessary condition for the nuclear deal. The Indian public was kept in the dark about such a major agreement and there was no hint that such a momentous compact would be made during the visit of the Indian defense minister to Washington. In fact on the eve of his visit he pointedly downplayed its significance, saying that the trip was “exploratory in nature.” Considering the pivotal role the defense agreement played in the making of the nuclear deal, it is understandable why New Delhi deliberately hid from view the links between the different parts of the strategic alliance with the United States. M.R. Srinivasan, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, has written that “it was a mistake for India to have parked the nuclear agreement in an Indo-U.S. strategic relationship.”

Indian leaders fully subscribed to the arrangement apparently tantalized by the grand U.S. promise to help India become a major world power. They also knew that the Hyde Act prescribed and constrained India’s foreign policy options. The opposition to the nuclear deal led by the leftist parties reflects a principled rejection of linkages that have serious adverse implications for India’s foreign and defense policies. A joint statement by the leftist parties underlined the need to consider “its implications for Indian foreign policy, strategic autonomy and the repercussions of the U.S. quest to make India a reliable ally in Asia” and described it as a “crucial step to lock in India into the global U.S. strategic design.”

Indian Prime Minister Singh is caught between mounting pressure from Washington and opposition from leftist parties. The nuclear deal will likely fall between the cracks. The culprit will seem to be an overly ambitious timetable that India can’t meet. But the real reason will be Indian opposition to U.S. attempts to control both its domestic energy policy and its strategic military policy.

Ninan Koshy is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org) based in Trivandrum, Kerala, India. He is the author of The War on Terror: Reordering the World and Under the Empire: India’s New Foreign Policy. He is also the co-author of Uncle Sam’s Nuclear Cabin.