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Next steps in the Indo-US deal

The Indo-US nuclear deal has been signed. The next step is to get it passed through the US Congress and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). T...

Written by Gurmeet Kanwal |
March 6, 2006

The Indo-US nuclear deal has been signed. The next step is to get it passed through the US Congress and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). This also entails amending the laws, so that India can receive the same benefits as those states that are a party to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). Therefore, while the recent agreement is, in one sense, the culmination of of a process that began in Washington on July 18, 2005, it will be a long hard grind before India can begin to reap the benefits of this historic deal and be recognised as a nuclear-armed world power.

No one should be under any illusion that the agreement will pass muster with the US Congress simply because the Republicans have the necessary numbers. There are still deeply entrenched mindsets within the US State Department and the non-proliferation ayatollahs are livid that the US has decided to make India an exception. They will lobby hard with senators, Congressmen and women to obstruct its smooth passage. Above all, it is an election year in the US, and members of the Congress will have their ears cocked for dissenting voices back in their constituencies. Politicians everywhere like the sound of their own voice and in the US, in particular, they love to fight phantoms on primetime TV. Hence, India should be prepared to see the US administration being closely questioned about the wisdom of the deal.

Members of Congress will query India’s non-proliferation track record, especially the violation of the ‘peaceful use’ agreement regarding the Canadian-supplied Cirus reactor to produce plutonium for nuclear warheads. They will also demand to know the upper limit that India considers justified on the number of nuclear warheads that it wishes to stockpile for a credible minimum deterrence. They will ask why the US should help India increase its stockpile by providing uranium supplies that will allow India to divert its own uranium for nuclear warheads. Senator John Kerry has said in India this January that vertical proliferation will not be acceptable and that India cannot have an open-ended nuclear warhead programme. And, of course, members will question the wisdom of the administration in accepting India’s fast-breeder reactors outside the civilian list.

Another issue that is likely to figure in the Congress is India’s quest for nuclear-powered submarines (SSBNs) armed with SLBMs for survivable retaliatory strike capability. Several members of the US Congress have been paranoid about India acquiring such a capability, as they see it as a direct threat to US national security interests. Congressman Tom Lantos (Democrat, California) had called Natwar Singh, India’s former minister for external affairs, ‘dense’ for failing to see the linkage between the nuclear deal and India’s support for the US position in the IAEA on the Iranian nuclear crisis. While India has already voted twice with the US on this issue, the connection will undoubtedly come up again when the Congress debates the nuclear deal.

The US has for long hoped that India would support it directly in Iraq by providing an infantry division to take over a sector for counter-insurgency operations, as the Indian army has the capability and the experience to intervene effectively. The BJP-led NDA government had almost agreed to provide a division and then backed out as it had failed to create a national consensus on the issue. With daily casualties mounting, and Iraq on the brink of civil war, this demand will come up again in the Congress as a quid pro quo. Members of the Congress will also ask the Bush administration to explain how the deal with India will benefit American business interests, as General Electric and Westinghouse, the leading nuclear technology suppliers in the US, do not have state-of-the-art technology to meet India’s huge demand. It is well known that India is likely to approach France and Russia for nuclear reactors in the short term. Hence the US Congress may look for a big-ticket purchase of weapons and equipment by India like F-16 or F-18 fighter-bombers and may link the passage of the deal to such a purchase. The game has only just begun. Should India sit back and let the US administration bat on its behalf? That will be a mistake, as there will be many queries that only the Indians in Washington can answer.

Well, the battle lines will soon be drawn for the big fight ahead and Ambassador Ronen Sen and his team will have their hands full. Luckily they will have President George W. Bush on their side.

The writer is director, Security Studies, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

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