The Indo-US Nuclear Deal – Pre-marital Discord?

The nuclear deal refuses to go off the news. Just when India thought that two of the three key hurdles – defense of the deal in the Indian Parliament, a clean waiver from NSG, and ratification of the deal by the US congress – had been accomplished, came word about the White house letter to a Congressional committee in Jan 2008, and Bush’s covering letter referring the deal for ratification to the Congress. The Bush letter shows, irrespective of its content, the extent to which the US government has gone to get the deal approved, as did the Indian government on its end. Why such hardsell? because the nuclear deal isnt about nuclear fuel supply etc anyways. Given that nuclear non-proliferation has been the biggest irritant in Indo-US ties since the 1990s, this deal was about removing the roadblock to building a strategic partnership with US. The Indian communists were right in what they say the deal entailed. They were wrong in opposing it. Because it’s time india moved out of shadows of the Cold War and took an interests-based approach to foreign policy rather than an ideology-based one.

Having said that, we cannot ignore the Bush letter’s content altogether. After the letter was revealed, people wondered if India had been naive in expecting the US to honor the 123 agreement’s guarantee of uninterrupted supply of nuclear fuel. Under the cover of “interpretation” of the agreement, was the Bush administration trying to have its cake and eating it too?

Actually, both India and the US have displayed some naivete in estimating the other side in this deal. India thought it could get a clean waiver with no strings attached. The US thought India could both be made an ally and a confirmant to non-proliferation laws through the deal. Neither side has achieved much in terms of these expectations.
Trust has always been a difficult element in Indo-US ties. American critics think India’s self-righteous posturing cannot be effaced by strategic benefits from the US and that therefore, India will remain a pain. Witness India’s duplicitous dealings with Iran despite American protests. American diplomats believe in reciprocity – willing to give as long as there is something being given. Indian skeptics on the other hand, say that reciprocity difficult when the odds are so heavily in the Americans’ favor. They also feel that the US will never shed its one-sided, self-centered way of dealing and will walk away from any deal it feels uncomfortable with. Witness the US’ unilateral withdrawal from the ABM treaty with Russia. In other words, Americans sees Indians as Machiavellis while Indians see Americans as Vito Corleones.These perception defects would have to change if the real aim of the 123 agreement viz. strategic relationship, is to be fulfilled. And that can only happen through relentless dialog at all levels between the India and the US. But whether the relationship triumphs is something that only time can tell.

As one of the architects of India’s strategic doctrine put it to me recently, “We’ll have to wait and watch if the relationship works. The US has never had partners, only allies. And India’s never had neither partners nor allies”. In some ways, this deal is like a marriage between a male chauvinist and a feminist. Let’s hope it lasts.

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