AT every stage opponents of the nuclear deal said it would not make it, be amended beyond recognition, or simply fail to pass muster. But two people — Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US President George W Bush — insisted on pushing the deal based on a joint statement they had made on July 18, 2005. With the passage of the Nuclear Suppliers Group waiver, the Indo-US nuclear deal is through and it is set to shake not just the world, but Indian politics as well.
First, no matter what critics say, the agreement confers on India a de facto status of a nuclear weapons state. We can never be de jure because the NPT condition is that we should have tested our nuclear weapons before 1967. There is a special irony here, because the NSG was set up, as its own document states, “following the explosion in 1974 of a nuclear device by a non-nuclear-weapon State….”
The second, and perhaps the most important outcome, is that this represents India's entry into the world order as a significant power (Let’s not use the loaded “Great Power”). As long as India remained in an “outsider” category we were not quite the same as the others, no matter what they said, or we did. We could boast of our bomb, our BPO prowess, economic growth, invites to the G-8 meetings and candidacy for the UN Security Council seat and so on. But we were firmly at a different level from, say, China. They could import powerful computers, uranium, sensitive machine tools, software and components for satellites that were denied to us. The NSG waiver now lifts the embargo on India acquiring nuclear technology and, in some ways more important, the so-called dual use technologies.
Third, the deal finally buries the policy of equating India and Pakistan. For decades India has chafed at the world's tendency to lock India into a bipolar South Asian framework with Pakistan. Now, decisively, the rules have been changed for India, and pointedly not for Pakistan.
Fourth, while one aspect of this entry — our nuclear tests of 1998 — is tantamount to a gate-crash, it is by and large a friendly entry into the nuclear club. The opposition of Austria, Ireland, New Zealand — countries with no nuclear materials or technology but powerful anti-nuclear electorates — is history. Of greater significance is that countries as diverse as Russia, Brazil, Argentina, Japan, South Africa, Germany, France, Turkey joined the US in welcoming India into the club.
Fifth, the deal represents politics as being quintessentially the art of the possible. Both India and its interlocutors would have liked much more from each other, but chose pragmatically to be satisfied with a mutually beneficial compromise.
The United States has played a key role. No other country, or a group of them, could have done what it did — get the 45-member NSG to stand its rules on its head. There is no conspiracy here. Geopolitically and economically, India is a good bet on which the US has invested in for decades, even when its main stakes were on Pakistan. US assistance in the 1960s enabled India's educational base which paid off in the 1990s in the form of the BPO business that has helped India to emerge as an IT powerhouse. For their part, Indians have voted for good relations with the US with their feet — migrating there in unprecedented numbers. In the process, the two countries have developed cross-stakes in each other.
But the US commitment is also driven by the rise of China. While the US and China have far deeper economic links with each other than the US and India have, the Americans remain deeply suspicious of Beijing, if only because of China’s opaque and authoritarian political system. But this should not be seen in old-fashioned balance of power terms where the combine is aimed at weakening China. The aim of America’s India policy is to hedge against things going wrong there, and in the process sending a signal to Beijing that the US is not entirely without options in the Asian region.
How do I argue that this deal also marks a major shift in India's domestic politics? The Congress has had a historical love affair with the Left. In the 1930s the socialists and communists functioned as a ginger group known as the Congress Socialist Party. Later the CPI officially supported Indira Gandhi’s Left-leaning government. Though the CPI(M)’s politics was marked by anti-Congressism between 1970 and 1990, the party began to reluctantly see the Congress as the only bulwark against the BJP.
As the Third Front failed to jell and the Congress strength ebbed, the party became more domineering with the help of Left-leaning Congressmen like Arjun Singh within the Congress. As of 2004, they became positively obstreperous on a number of issues. For a while the Congress played on, mainly because Sonia Gandhi felt a special obligation to the Communists for backing her in the “foreign origin” controversy raised by the BJP.
But in the end, Sonia had to look after her party and government which was being undermined by the Left’s unrelenting hostility to the goals of her Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Finally, however, the issue was settled by Prakash Karat and Co overreaching themselves and forcing the Congress Party to break with the Left. A major role was played in this by Rahul Gandhi who has emerged as one of the strongest backers of the deal within the party and who is seeking to redefine the party’s post-Indira ideology. This process was begun by Rajiv Gandhi, but was short-circuited by his assassination.
The thralldom of the Left has acted as a brake on India’s march towards economic reform and growth. With an uncompromising leader like Karat in control, the chances of a rapprochement between the Left and the Congress is dim. This is all for the good for it compels the latter to swim in the deep end of the pool by itself and to build up a party that does not rely on the problematic support of the Left.
For a variety of reasons, none of them honourable, our Left and the BJP remain determined to oppose the nuclear deal. They have taken recourse to scare-mongering to persuade the public of their point of view. The BJP claims we will not have the right to test, as though such a right could have been incorporated in a civil nuclear agreement, leave alone be granted by the NSG.
The Left claims that India has sold out to the American camp; well, they have been saying this since Independence. Recollect, when India became free in 1947, B.T. Ranadive, one of Karat’s heroes, claimed that freedom was a sham and Jawaharlal and the Congress were just lackeys of the imperialists. They were wrong then, they are wrong now.
The set of agreements that comprise the Indo-US nuclear deal are not static documents tantamount to the Scripture. They are living products of international politics and, in this sense, will mutate and reshape themselves in the future, depending on the use or misuse they are put to. As documents, they are in themselves worth only their weight of the paper they are written on, unless there is a congruence of interests, and mutuality of benefit, among the signatories — India, US, the IAEA, and the constituents of the NSG.
This appeared in Mail Today September 10, 08