October 16, 2007

India Nuclear Deal Collapsing

India may pull back from the nuclear deal negotiated two years ago with the Bush administration, a result of party politics. The Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, informed President Bush directly of the "difficulties" that have arisen internally, focusing on sovereignty but also an effort by Indian Communists to keep the nation from becoming too close to the US:

A controversial nuclear deal between the United States and India appears close to collapse after the Indian prime minister told President Bush yesterday that "certain difficulties" will prevent India from moving forward on the pact for the foreseeable future.

The main obstacle does not involve the specific terms of the agreement but rather India's internal politics, including fears from leftist parties that India is moving too close to the United States, according to officials and experts familiar with the deal. Besieged over the past two months by growing opposition to nuclear energy cooperation with the United States, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh indicated over the weekend that he would rather save his coalition government than the nuclear pact.

"What we have done with the U.S., it is an honorable deal, it is good for India, and it is good for the world," Singh said Saturday. "But we are in the realm of politics, and within our coalition, there are differing perceptions."

Neither government appeared eager to announce the setback to what had been billed as one of the Bush administration's biggest foreign policy achievements. India's only official pronouncement was tucked at the bottom of a seven-paragraph news release on the Indian Embassy Web site outlining a telephone conversation Monday between Singh and Bush.

The pact had been considered one of the Bush administration's clear victories in foreign policy. For decades, India had not just clung to non-alignment but had exercised a policy of diffidence to the United States. People on both sides of the divide wondered why the world's first democratic republic and its largest could not find common ground for better relations.

When Bush and Singh crafted the agreement, many celebrated it as a channel for much closer relations on a wider range of issues. Unfortunately, political opponents in both countries see that as a problem, for a variety of reasons. In the US, many questioned the precedent of allowing India to coordinate its nuclear efforts with the US outside of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. In India, people opposed to our relationship with Pakistan and the policies of the war on terror want little to do with the US, and believe that a cool distance from the US is the better policy -- especially the Communists.

Unfortunately, an attempt to address the concerns of the deal's critics here seems to have undermined the coalition in India. The requirement of engaging with the International Atomic Energy Agency has driven off the Hindu nationalists, which initially supported the deal. They see it as an intrusion on Indian sovereignty and have apparently joined the Communists in threatening to bring down the government if they try it. The only way around that is to hold an election on the issue, but apparently Singh doesn't feel sanguine enough about his national support to try that option, either.

It's too bad, but it looks as though the deal may wind up a dead letter. Not only would it have strengthened ties between the two nations and helped extend our reach in a critical region, it would have allowed India to pursue domestic nuclear power and taken some pressure off of the global petroleum markets. At some point, the US and India will have to try again to make this work.


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