India's risky nuclear showdown

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 October, 2007, 12:00am

Manmohan Singh got the job as India's prime minister because of his skills as a technocrat who would reform the economy. Now, having been blocked by his leftist allies over key economic reforms, Dr Singh is involved in a literally nuclear struggle with the left to prove his worth as a politician.

If he fails, the government may collapse; if he succeeds, it will mark an important phase in India's emergence as a potential superpower.

The issue is the nuclear co-operation deal that Dr Singh and US President George W. Bush struck in July - the so-called 123 Agreement. Most observers outside India have attacked the deal as illegal, dangerous or unhelpful to world peace. So you might cynically conclude that, with so much hostility, it must be embraced as good for India - especially when Pakistan declared that it, too, would like such a deal.

But that's not so. Indian political commentators have said that, if he puts the deal to parliament, Dr Singh might lose. So far, the prime minister has been playing for time, talking and arguing with the leftists who prop up the Congress-led coalition.

The 123 Agreement promises Washington's help for India's civilian nuclear energy programme. Its supporters say it brings New Delhi in from the nuclear cold, confirms that India is a budding power that cannot be ignored and inaugurates a new era of friendship with Washington - a triple coup. It effectively makes India a member of the exclusive nuclear club even though it has refused to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Therein lie some of the potential problems, too. After India's first nuclear test, in 1974, Washington froze New Delhi out of access to all nuclear technology and materials, as part of a bullying campaign to get India to give up nuclear weapons and join the NPT.

Dr Singh and Mr Bush got around that with a plan to separate India's civilian and military facilities. India has promised to designate 14 of its 22 nuclear reactors as civilian and, by 2014, to put them under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards in perpetuity.

In effect, the deal is for full civilian nuclear co-operation with the US, and thereby the world - as Washington amends its laws and gets the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers' Group to lift its ban on nuclear trade.

American concerns about the deal are understandable - centred mainly on the claim that Washington is giving up its fight against nuclear proliferation. The Bush administration has also been criticised for failing to hold full discussions on the issue, and other possible solutions, before making such a bold demarche.

In a thoughtful critique of the deal, George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, suggested that American negotiators were guided by a wish to mobilise friendly states on China's periphery to balance Beijing's growing power. He warned that there were other, safer ways to reward 'good guys' like India, without setting the sorts of precedents that might encourage Beijing to seek similar, favourable treatment.

Even though the US Congress gave preliminary approval to the outline deal last year, the fight for final approval will be fiercer. The critics say the concessions to India will make it harder to deal with nuclear 'wannabes' such as Iran. At the very least, unhappy congressmen may demand a clause that would immediately cut off aid and nuclear supplies to India if New Delhi tests a nuclear weapon - and demand similar rules from all nuclear suppliers. Otherwise, India would be free to get technology from unscrupulous states keen to make a fast buck.

The political air in New Delhi reeks of hypocrisy and opportunism, and that is why Dr Singh is facing a tricky situation that will test his hitherto unexplored political skills. He faces resistance from an unholy combination of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and his own leftist allies. Both accuse him of selling out to the US.

The BJP has joined the communist core of the leftist block in presenting the issue as one of sovereignty. 'Keep Washington's hand off India's bomb' is the way they see it.

The government retorts that it is free to develop its military arm as it wishes - precisely because it separated its civilian and nuclear facilities. Dr Singh says the deal does not put Washington's finger on New Delhi's nuclear weapons trigger. But he will have a hard time sustaining that claim if opponents in Washington try to insert a clause cutting off all nuclear supplies if India tests another atomic weapon.

The prime minister has insisted that the deal is the best one for India, and cannot be changed. But, in a sign of how tense things have become on the political front, India Congress leader Sonia Gandhi this week called the deal's opponents 'enemies of progress and development', and issued a thinly veiled threat to call elections. India set a target deadline of the end of this month to get the deal approved, so that it can secure Washington's clearance before the US gets embroiled in general election politics.

Would Mrs Gandhi really call a vote? The question has dangerous implications. According to polls, support would change little for the major parties but would weaken for the left. Surveys have been wrong before, of course.

Coincidentally, this week the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the club of rich industrial countries, declared that India's economy had overtaken Japan's, becoming the third-largest in the world in terms of real prices and purchasing power. Now it trails only the US and China.

But the report contained major criticisms, emphasising the need for more economic reforms.

If Dr Singh had insisted on his reforms and vanquished his awkward leftist allies as soon as he came into power, he might have had an even stronger economy - without having to worry about the opposition now threatening to nuke him.

Kevin Rafferty was previously executive editor of the Indian Express, India's leading newspaper group