Cloud hangs over the Indo-US nuclear deal

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 May, 2007, 12:00am

Indian diplomats are playing down the disagreement with the US over a recent nuclear deal as just a 'hiccup' in bilateral relations.

American politicians across party lines, think-tanks and anti-nuclear activists question the wisdom of the Bush administration giving India access to sensitive nuclear technology and materials without New Delhi signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty. India, they say, is allowing inspection of only its civilian nuclear reactors.

There is opposition in India too; the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the communists, who have become strange bedfellows in their common opposition to the nuclear deal - the so-called '123 agreement' - claim that India is 'signing away its sovereignty and self-determination on the nuclear position' in exchange for technology and materials.

One of the clearest indications of US annoyance came with the abrupt cancellation of a scheduled visit this week to India by US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns.

He said he would travel to India at a time when it would be 'most effective' to finalise the deal.

The first sign of the deal being in serious trouble came when Indian Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon visited Washington early this month. US experts were quick to point out that Mr Menon's visit implied that all was not well.

Both sides have come to a diplomatic cul de sac. Already peeved by India pursuing a gas supply deal with Iran, critics in the US are angry over India's refusal to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty and its insistence on having uninterrupted nuclear fuel supplies. India, for its part, rejects the curtailment of its right to conduct nuclear tests or reprocess the spent fuel.

India appears intransigent, particularly after, to quote one State Department official, the US administration had 'bent over backward' to push the deal. However, the US does not want to alienate India which, according to Washington's calculations, can form a strong counterweight to the rising economic and military power of China.

Consequently, pundits in the US capital refuse to write an obituary on the deal - yet. There is widespread hope that both US President George W. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will give it new momentum when they meet on the sidelines of the Group of Eight summit in Germany next month.

The opposition BJP, which carried out the 1998 Pokhran nuclear tests when it formed the coalition government, has criticised Dr Singh for undermining the credibility of the deterrent. This view is shared by a number of Indian scientists and strategists, who fear that India, without an adequate deterrent, could face pressure and even blackmail from nuclear rivals China and Pakistan.

A clearer picture about the fate of the deal will emerge when Mr Bush and Dr Singh meet in Germany: it will show whether the present estrangement is a long-term problem or 'just a hiccup'.

Manik Mehta is a New York-based political commentator