By Emily Wax and Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 26, 2007
NEW DELHI -- After two years of painstaking negotiations, a historic nuclear cooperation agreement between the United States and India appears to be unraveling as a broad spectrum of political parties calls on the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to scrap the deal, saying it limits the country's sovereignty in energy and foreign policy matters.
The landmark accord that just weeks ago looked like a major foreign policy triumph for this energy-starved subcontinent has become a political liability for India's fragile ruling coalition.
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 administration had assured the government here that it could receive uninterrupted nuclear supplies from the United States and maintain the right to reprocess spent nuclear fuel -- a potentially dangerous prospect because reprocessing technology can also be used to make weapons-grade plutonium. To many Western observers, India already had the upper hand in the deal, a testament to its growing international influence.
"The Indian negotiators were as tough or tougher than anyone that the U.S. has encountered in recent years," said Philip D. Zelikow, former counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and a key player in the accord. "India won a great deal."
In return, the Bush administration firmed up a strategic alliance with a country that in many ways is expected to shape the future of Asia. India's nuclear program serves as a check on Pakistan's, as well as a counterbalance to China's nuclear prowess.
But in the latest twist of the saga, an alliance of Indian communist parties has called on Singh's government to scrap the deal. The parties say India's sovereignty was compromised by the agreement because it includes a condition that all but requires the government's cooperation in U.S. foreign policy matters.
Partly at issue for India is whether it can conduct further nuclear tests without violating the terms of its agreement with the United States. The right to do so is fiercely protected by politicians in India, whose lingering mistrust of Western powers dates back to British colonial rule.
"We have the right to test. They have the right to protest," the embattled Singh said when asked by Indian reporters what would happen if India tested another nuclear bomb, as it did in 1998.
All week, breaking news about the "government in crisis" has been splashed across the newspapers and broadcast on television, with anxious reports about the looming demise of the U.S.-India nuclear deal and, along with it, Singh's coalition government.
"The deal is frozen. It is stuck," a senior Indian government official said on condition of anonymity. "Now only a miracle can retrieve the deal."
The push for India to renege on the nuclear pact has vexed U.S. officials, who are facing their own domestic criticism for reaching an agreement with a country that has refused to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Nuclear experts say the Bush administration was too lenient with India.
In India, some analysts say India is already in a good position.
"We have sufficient weapons-grade plutonium for maintaining the minimum credible arsenal," said K. Santhanam, a defense expert in New Delhi, adding that the deal would not affect India's nuclear weapons program. "We are and can remain a regional power and should be able to vacate all nuclear threats."
Some analysts say the communist parties are using anti-Americanism surrounding the nuclear issue to court Muslim votes in a country with the world's second-largest Muslim population. The conservative Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, also wants to help sink the nuclear deal, saying it objects to it not on the basis of anti-American sentiments but because outsiders should not have control over India's foreign policy or its right to test weapons.
The U.S.-India agreement was made possible by the so-called Hyde Act, which was approved by the U.S. Congress last December and which created an exception to the U.S. policy of not cooperating on nuclear issues with countries that have not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Critics say the act is vague. It will create "a minefield of future misunderstanding between India and the U.S.," said Yashwant Sinha, a BJP leader and former foreign minister. "The U.S. and India have interpreted the agreement in two different ways. Unless you have a common understanding of what you are doing, you will run into problems."
But from the U.S. point of view, such statements are ironic.
"If they back out, they are looking a gift horse in the mouth," Zelikow said of the groups opposed to the nuclear agreement. "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."
Relations between the United States and India historically have been antagonistic, a carry-over from the Cold War era, when India appeared to warm to the Soviet Union while the United States fostered ties with India's nemesis, Pakistan.
The relationship has improved in the past decade, because the two nations today share both people and politics.
With 2 million Americans of Indian origin living in the United States, India receives the largest number of U.S. visas, second only to Mexico, according to the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. Trade between the two countries has also intensified, spurred largely by India's growing information technology industry.
Still, problems in the relationship remain. In May, Congress expressed "grave concerns" about India's friendly relationship with Iran, which has its own nuclear program. Indian officials are discussing with Iran the prospect of partnering in the construction of a natural gas pipeline.
A vote on Capitol Hill is expected on the nuclear deal in coming months. Meanwhile, India still needs to reach separate agreements concerning additional nuclear safeguards with global regulating agencies, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
Even if India goes ahead with its plans, nuclear power will satisfy only about 8 percent of the country's current energy needs, nuclear analysts said.
"To make India's foreign policy and strategic autonomy hostage to the potential benefits of nuclear energy does not make any sense, except for the American imperative to bind India to its strategic designs in Asia," Prakash Karat, head of the country's Communist Party, wrote in the Hindu, an English-language daily newspaper.
Other analysts say that India should now have the economic and political confidence to solve its domestic political woes and go forward on the deal, lest the government appear immature on the world stage.
"This is extremely important for India's growth. It opens up avenues to power which we have not had access to in the past," said R.K. Pachauri, head of the Tata Energy Research Institute in New Delhi. "You can't expect the world to deliver us a blank check."