Can India Say Yes?
New Delhi comes to a crossroads over nuclear cooperation with the United States.
Washington Post, June 25, 2008; A12
INDIA IS clearly destined for a greater role on the world stage, and there are sound reasons to hope that it will increasingly find itself in sync with the United States as its influence grows. India, a culturally diverse and economically booming democracy of more than 1 billion people, and America share political values and strategic priorities -- such as blunting Chinese military power and resisting Islamist terrorism. These considerations led the Bush administration to pursue a "strategic partnership," the heart of which is a far-reaching nuclear cooperation agreement. It would permit a resumption of U.S. sales of nuclear fuel and technology to India for nonmilitary uses, despite India's development of nuclear weapons outside the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Why, then, is India balking at the deal, the final contours of which were settled almost a year ago? If anything, the accord is stacked in India's favor. It allows India not only to buy uranium and nuclear reactors from the United States but also to reprocess spent atomic fuel at a new facility, under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) supervision to prevent its diversion into weapons programs. The United States committed itself to helping India accumulate a nuclear fuel stockpile, thus insulating New Delhi against a U.S. law that provides for a supply cutoff in the event that India conducts a nuclear test. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, understanding both the boost in international prestige the arrangement would give India and the reduction in carbon emissions that his country could achieve from using more nuclear energy, has all but staked his government on implementation.
The problem is that India's old-style domestic politics lags behind its new international opportunities. Mr. Singh's own Congress Party is not firmly united behind the nuclear deal, and his junior coalition partner, the Communists, are dead-set against it -- because they see it as a sellout of the country's traditionally independent foreign policy. India must first seek approval from the IAEA's board of governors and then from the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group -- and then the U.S. Congress would have to sign off, probably not without some criticism of India's energy cooperation with Iran. If the Communists quit, Mr. Singh's government will fall, and his Congress Party would have to face voters with inflation at a 13-year high.
Mr. Singh's party and the Communists are scheduled to meet today for one last round of negotiation. Prospects for agreement are bleak. And there might not be time to get the accord through this U.S. Congress, even if the Communists unexpectedly back down -- or if Mr. Singh decides that sticking to the deal is worth the risks of a new election, as some recent reports from New Delhi suggest he will. The good news here is that India is indeed a vibrant democracy, where the people's elected representatives across the spectrum have a right to be heard and to influence policy. But if New Delhi's politicians cannot find a way to say yes to such a clearly advantageous agreement with a natural ally, the next U.S. administration no doubt will think twice before trying anything like it.