The winter vacation on Capitol Hill is the moment for senators and congressmen to familiarize themselves with a world outside the Beltway and their constituencies. India being a flavour of the season, New Delhi has hosted a stream of visitors anxious to find out what is making this erstwhile exporter of communicable diseases ' the parting comment of a former US ambassador ' suddenly tick. John Kerry, a senator and the unsuccessful Democratic candidate in the 2004 US presidential election, was among the more prominent of the visitors. Last Wednesday evening, the US ambassador hosted a small, interactive dinner with the Massachusetts senator, which was useful in providing insights into the likely obstacles in the path of the proposed Indo-US nuclear understanding.
Kerry's political credentials are impeccably liberal, not least because he represents a state that even voted for George McGovern and Walter Mondale. His opposition to President George W. Bush, apart from being ideological, is also instinctive. Kerry may not be a non-proliferation fanatic but he would certainly count the so-called ayatollahs of non-proliferation on Capitol Hill as among his natural allies. This probably explains why he came to Delhi with a dhobi list of questions and clarifications about the July 18 agreement.
The senator's contention was couched in the vocabulary of practical and pragmatic politics. The Indo-US nuclear deal, he argued, is a principle worth supporting but there are concerns of people who see non-proliferation as an article of faith. These concerns, he feels, must be met more than halfway by India being accommodating on the details of the understanding. Only then will the agreement pass muster in the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Although Kerry made it clear that he was not necessarily speaking for himself but merely alerting India to the concerns of his colleagues, it is apparent that the assumptions that guided the Bush administration into sponsoring India's membership of the nuclear high table aren't universally shared in Washington DC. For Bush and, more particularly, his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, the July 18 agreement was only partially about nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. By attempting to remove the single impediment in the path of a robust bilateral understanding, the Bush administration was facilitating a fundamental realignment in Asia. India, which, for historical reasons, had been outside the American radar, was being brought in as a serious strategic partner. Since the fallout of India's 1998 nuclear tests made a full-throated relationship impossible, the Bush administration sought to exempt India from the punitive drill associated with the closed membership of the nuclear high table. Rice, presumably, had India high on her mind when she wrote in The Washington Post last month that the United States of America 'must transcend doctrines and debates of the past and transform the volatile status quo that no longer serve our interests. What is needed is a realistic statecraft for a transformed world.'
In effect, Rice was suggesting that India should not be treated as a permanent pariah because it went nuclear in 1998, as opposed to 1968. The imperatives of 'realistic statecraft' demanded that the democratic and civilizational worth of India, and its military and economic potential, be acknowledged and fitted into the larger strategic designs of the US.
It is a compelling argument that is also based on the recognition of India's track record of not exporting its nuclear know-how for political and financial considerations. The same can hardly be said about either Russia or China.
Unfortunately for India, the Bush administration's pragmatic non-proliferation runs into idealistic opposition. For the sanctimonious Scandinavian countries and Japan, the rollback of nuclear weapons is an article of faith. By converting P-5 into P-6, the Bush administration, the non-proliferation lobby fear, is redrawing the rules of the non-proliferation treaty. The Democratic Party legislators on Capitol Hill aren't necessarily as preachy as the Norwegians and Swedes but they too seem to want India to do more than just separate the civilian and military facilities. They want India to cap its production of fissile material. Robert James, the US undersecretary of state for arms control and security, echoed these sentiments to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on November 2, 2005: 'To ensure that the US and other potential suppliers can confidently supply to India and meet our obligations to the NPT, safeguards must be applied in perpetuity.'
The term 'in perpetuity' is a euphemism for the defanging of India. No Indian government can sell such a deal to its people.
The insistence on such harsh non-proliferation-linked terms is also based on the complete detachment of the July 18 understanding from the geo-politics of Asia. The gulf between the new realists like Rice and the old idealists such as Kerry is most evident on the issue of China. Like most Clinton Democrats, Kerry perceives China as a society in healthy transition. He feels that the old Long March generation is fast yielding to a new entrepreneurial leadership that is driven by business. To him, China does not have any expansionist or hegemonic designs, except, perhaps, in relation to Taiwan. Just before the formal interaction, Kerry stumped the Bharatiya Janata Party general secretary, Pramod Mahajan, and me by suggesting that India could be provided a nuclear umbrella by all the P-5 countries. When I asked whether he included China he grudgingly admitted that maybe not.
The senator's innocence is revealing. Whereas there is a convergence between the stalwarts of the Bush administration and India's strategic community over the potential threat posed by China, this is not shared by the liberals on Capitol Hill. To many of them, legitimizing India's nuclear arsenal is akin to giving Iran the permission to assemble nuclear warheads to target Israel. To them, there is no qualitative difference between the good boy approach of India and the nuclear supermarket run by Pakistan in A.Q. Khan's heyday. They also seem to be influenced by China's feverish lobbying against any Indo-US nuclear deal and its warning that if Washington can legitimize Delhi, Beijing can do the same with, say, Islamabad.
It is a menacing suggestion but, tragically, its threatening overtones have not been adequately discussed. Kerry may have returned to Boston much better informed about Indian strategic perceptions of China but it is unlikely the other sceptics on Capitol Hill will have the same exposure. China is perhaps the driving rationale behind the Bush administration reaching out to India. The growing concern over China's Middle Kingdom impulses is also the reason why a large section of the Indian political establishment wants to kiss and make up with the US. The China factor is the reason why the Communist Party of India (Marxist) would rather bring down the United Progressive Alliance government than permit the evolution of a Indo-US special relationship.
Yet, and in a bizarre way, there is no open discussion of the China factor. It is at best referred to in code 'disparagingly as the strategic competitor and disingenuously as another strategic partner. There are few like the former ambassador, Robert Blackwill, who bluntly will admit that while the nuclear deal 'is not about containing China...it's about responding to the rise of Chinese power and seeking to develop relationships with India and Japan to better manage it'.
People like Kerry don't see it that way. They may well try and push India to a point where signing the agreement would become dishonourable for India. Fortunately, there are others who look beyond technical nit-picking to the larger canvas of two of the largest democracies acting in concert. It is hoped that they will not let this opportunity pass.