India's woeful mishandling of negotiations over the 123 Agreement leave some to wonder about the government's ability to manage itself on the international stage.
Commentary for ISN Security Watch (24/08/07)
"Running around like headless chickens."
This was how India's ambassador in Washington, Ronen Sen, described the domestic critics of India's nuclear deal with the US. This tasteless remark believed to be directed at Indian lawmakers might eventually cost him his job. Unfortunately, for him and the Indian government, the critics are growing by the day.
From the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the right to the communist parties on the left, a host of groups question the just-concluded agreement, commonly referred to as the 123 Agreement. Many argue that by including domestic US nonproliferation laws into the work, India has "surrendered" its sovereignty. While parliamentary ratification is not mandatory, should the deal be put to vote, the government would be shown the door.
If the BJP is the open adversary, the left parties have been a doubtful ally ever since Manmohan Singh became prime minister following the May 2004 elections. The left also demands that that the government not negotiate a safeguards agreement with the IAEA toward implementing the Indo-US nuclear deal. Without such an agreement, India would not be able to convince the powerful Nuclear Suppliers Groups (NSG) to accept the Indo-US deal and operationalize it. With internal “friends” like the left, Manmohan Singh does not need external enemies.
The problem however, is largely India's own making. From the very beginning, New Delhi did not factor in Washington's expectations while pursuing the nuclear deal. It never recognized let alone internalized US baggage vis-à-vis Iran. Even the Iran Libya Sanctions Act of 1996 (ILSA) was not taken into account when India started its energy strategy toward Iran.
The Indian leaders pretended that they could obtain energy supplies from Iran and civilian nuclear technology from the US without squaring the circle. They failed to recognize India's non-parallel interests with the US over Iran.
This ignorance proved to be costly. Having talked of "civilizational links" with that country, India voted against Iran at the IAEA in September 2005 and again in 2006 to refer the Iran file to the UN Security Council. The manner in which India handled and justified its vote gave an unmistakable impression that New Delhi acted under US pressures, if not dictates.
This lack of clarity and foresight is not the prerogative of the present government alone, but has become a bipartisan national disease. When it was in office, the BJP was more than eager to send troops to Iraq to shore up beleaguered US President George W Bush. It eventually backed out when Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee recognized opposition from his own collation partners.
For its part, the left in India is more Maoist than the Chinese. It is blissfully happy to live under a nuclear China but could not accept India going nuclear in 1998. Some also fault the government for not joining hands with Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), increasingly seen as a counterweight to NATO.
As it stands, a vast majority of the lawmakers, especially the communist allies whose support is essential for the survival of the government, are unlikely to accept the nuclear deal. At the same time, the Indian government would not be able renegotiate the deal with the US without losing its credibility. The international community, especially the NSG, would be reluctant to deal with such a sensitive issue when Indian government looks to be on its way out.
Ever since the nuclear deal was initialed in July 2005, Indian officials naively hoped that the US would bring about far-reaching changes in its domestic nonproliferation laws, silence the nuclear ayatollahs, convince other countries to accept the deal and work with key players like China not to oppose the deal at the NSG. The Bush administration would take these far-reaching steps, New Delhi hoped, while it was not prepared to accommodate American concerns over the nuclear stand off with Iran.
Had India read US expectations early and clearly, it would have approached the nuclear deal more carefully and avoided the minefield. It would have understood the political price and prepared the domestic public accordingly. Even if India was not prepared to go all the way, it could have evolved reasonable redlines on the Iran front and convinced the domestic as well as US public. This however, did not happen and as it was forced to recognize, there are no free lunches in Washington.
The manner in which Indian leaders handled the Indo-US nuclear deal pose a fundamental challenge: Are they capable of making a cost-benefit analysis of India's national interest and to convince domestic skeptics before seeking international recognition and cooperation?