India stares a nuclear disaster in the face

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 October, 2007, 12:00am

A nuclear agreement that was to have been emblematic of new strategic relations between the US and India appears to be falling apart, with serious consequence all around.

For US President George W. Bush, the faltering of the civilian nuclear agreement will be only a moderate diplomatic setback, overshadowed as it is by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the hostility of Iran and the Israeli-Arab conflict. Even so, the failure will rob Mr Bush of what might have been a modest triumph in the final months of his presidency.

For India, the consequences are likely to be more severe. The political life of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government is in jeopardy. India's international standing, including its aspiration to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council, will suffer. The nation's economic growth, which has started to rival China's, will be slowed by shortages of energy.

India's swirling political infighting seems to be the fundamental cause for the failure. The leftist parties, which are part of the ruling coalition under Dr Singh, oppose the agreement, saying it dilutes India's sovereignty.

In this instance, the left has made common cause with rightist and nationalist parties who are intent on bringing down the government.

Of this about-face, Prem Shankar Jha, a prominent Indian commentator in New Delhi, wrote: 'The damage that not having the courage to complete this deal will do to India is almost beyond comprehension ... Reneging now will make India a permanent outcast.' He contended that 'India's behaviour shows it never intended to be a constructive partner in the management of the world'.

The nuclear agreement, which has been more than two years in the making, would give India access to fresh supplies of nuclear fuel and technology. It would bring its nuclear energy programme under the International Atomic Energy Agency's safety inspections, and New Delhi was to pledge that its civilian nuclear programme would be dedicated to peaceful uses.

The agreement, however, would not halt India's efforts to expand its arsenal of nuclear weapons or stop the transfer of its current supply of nuclear materials from civilian to weapons programmes.

In a speech in New Delhi, in March last year, Mr Bush noted that the US and India had been kept apart during the cold war 'by the rivalries that divided the world'.

In contrast, the president added: 'India in the 21st century is a natural partner of the United States.'

Mr Bush repeated many of these points last December when he signed the legislation that Congress passed with strong bipartisan support to authorise the US to provide nuclear help to India.

Against this backdrop, Jha said that India's retreat from the agreement bordered on disaster. 'It may not be the end of the world, but it will be a very long time before we are invited to the high table again.'

Richard Halloran is a former

New York Times foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington