Nuclear kiss of death

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has plunged the United Progressive Alliance into a grave crisis by staking his reputation and India's "national prestige" on pushing the United States-India nuclear deal just when the deadline for it is about to close.

By Praful Bidwai (India Vision)

Published: Sat 5 Jul 2008, 11:15 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:21 PM

His mulish insistence on approaching the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency for approving the safeguards agreement signed with its secretariat has jeopardised the survival of the present governing arrangement, which is dependent on the Left parties. Their 59 MPs help the UPA comfortably cross the Lok Sabha's halfway mark of 272.

Yet, because the UPA lacks the courage to face an early election, it's negotiating a shady, opportunist and deplorable political deal with the Samajwadi Party merely to keep itself afloat.

The government has gone through the charade of organising a briefing for the SP to win its support. The UPA is trying to stitch together a shaky, unconvincing majority for the UPA (227 MPs) by recruiting "defector parties" like the Rashtriya Lok Dal and Janata Dal (Secular), besides the SP's 39 MPs.

Even if this new sleazy arrangement survives, it's unlikely to ensure that the nuclear deal will be concluded this year. As discussed below, the deal is likely to run into obstacles in the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers' Group and the US Congress. The UPA could end up losing both credibility and the deal-just when it faces adversity with inflation running above 11 percent, and a growing threat from the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Singh never had, and still lacks, a democratic mandate for the deal, which will cause a radical shift in India's strategic and foreign policy. Last November, the Left gave the UPA "an honourable exit" by allowing it to hold talks with the IAEA secretariat. But the UPA-Left committee on the deal agreed that the talks' outcome "will be presented to .. [it] ...before it finalises its findings".

However, the government now wants to go to the Board regardless of the findings.

Singh's nuclear obstinacy has dismayed Congressmen. He's a political lightweight, who has never won a popular election. He's pushing the deal under US pressure because he believes that it will leave a great legacy-a strategic alliance with Washington-comparable to the neoliberal economic shift he executed in 1991.

Congress leaders are reluctantly falling in line with Singh because Sonia Gandhi seems to have come around to supporting him. Unless she corrects course, Gandhi will commit a grave error.

A UPA-SP alliance won't be just a tactical shift. It means strategically moving away from a reliable and principled force (the Left), which is a bulwark against Hindu communalism, to a party which has compromised with it, and is steeped in opportunism. SP leaders have cut deals with shady business groups such as Sahara, and are involved in odious land transactions and tax scams. The SP took an anti-communal stance in the 1990s. But in recent years it has hobnobbed with the Sangh Parivar partly because of its fear of the Bahujan Samaj Party.

When in power in Uttar Pradesh until a year ago, the SP ensured that a notification needed to bring LK Advani to trial in the Babri case would not be issued. It donated crores to the VHP, and lavished official hospitality on the BJP's national council members in 2006.

The SP will extract a high price for supporting the UPA, including withdrawal of police investigations, dropping of ministers, and shelving the women's reservation Bill. This could prove the kiss of death for the UPA. Yet, the UPA is embarking on this course when it's not clear that the nuclear deal can be put through its next steps.

If and when the IAEA Board endorses the safeguards agreement, the NSG must grant India an unconditional exemption from its tough rules governing nuclear commerce. Then, the US Congress must ratify the 123 bilateral agreement.

The window of opportunity for completing these steps is fast slamming shut, if it has not closed. Many US policymakers and shapers like Ashley Tellis, an architect of the deal, Obama adviser Anthony Lake, and Congressman Gary Ackerman believe that it may be already too late. Daryl Kimball, of the Arms Control Association (US), says the deal is somewhere "between intensive care and the mortuary".

Asked recently whether the deal was dead, chairman of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Joseph Biden said: "I think it is... I think if it's not done by the time we go to the August recess, it's awfully hard" to wrap up the deal this year.

The deal will encounter its greatest hurdle at the NSG. Many NSG members will question why a unique exception be made for India to the global nuclear regime.

Indian negotiators hope they can obtain "a clear, clean and unconditional" exemption from the NSG, and that too by September. But the NSG's next meeting is not scheduled before September 22. Several members, including Ireland, New Zealand, Sweden and Australia, are uncomfortable with the deal. China and Germany remain uncertain.

The NSG debate could be a prolonged one. Some members will probably lay down conditions. Many believe that major concessions have already been made because India can keep its nuclear weapons. It's therefore reasonable to ask that India pledge not to conduct another nuclear test or cease fissile material production-as the major nuclear states have already done.

Any condition will kill the deal. Singh's supporters argue that the deal is a "litmus test" for India's "international credibility". But the world knows the compulsions of India's democratic politics don't favour the deal.

The Bush administration itself seems reconciled to a delay. On June 23, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said: "We'd like to believe that this deal ... can and should be supported by whoever comes into office in January of 2009. But obviously, the next US government will have to ... make their own decisions..."

Singh, then, is staking his reputation on a false premise.. This will have terrible consequences. If the Congress and the UPA have any sense, they should desist.

Praful Bidwai is a veteran Indian journalist and commentator. He can be reached at

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