Relations between India and the United States of America are once again at the crossroads. This week's developments in the US House of Representatives and the Senate on the nuclear deal ' announced by Manmohan Singh and George W. Bush last July ' are likely to trigger another political storm in New Delhi. This would be similar to the one that followed India's first vote against Iran at the meeting of the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Let us face it, the nuclear deal, as it is evolving, is not an unmixed blessing for India. But it is imperative that the country should weigh the advantages of firming up the deal against what might be if India continues to be in the no man's world of nuclear haves and have-nots. On balance, India is better off with the deal, but its spin-offs will not come to the country unless New Delhi makes the most of the agreement ' not its content, but the circumstances, which made it possible.
The horizon of Indo-US friendship was transformed about 15 years ago with the end of the Cold War. But burying ideological ghosts alone was insufficient to catapult India to the centre of the US national or international radar screen. The implementation of the July 18, 2005 agreement between Washington and New Delhi will be symbolic of what is possible between Asia's newest emerging giant and the world's only superpower, which, having reached the zenith of its accomplishments, is trying to halt its terminal decline because of circumstances way beyond its control.
The nuclear deal is important if it is not seen as an end in itself. It must be seen in conjunction with everything else that is happening in Indo-US relations. The captains of American industry are taken up with India as never before. For the first time, this has led to the creation of a structure that was all along necessary to transform corporate America's interest in India's emerging market into concrete results, the benefits of which can trickle down to ordinary people. This process started as an annual lunch with the prime minister in New York during the United Nations General Assembly, attended by top American CEOs. In its second year, this process led to the creation of a CEO's forum, which brought together Indian and American corporate leaders under one umbrella.
Despite all the talk about free enterprise and capitalism, let us face it, America's private sector is highly regulated in many respects. Export control laws, real or imagined political risks and the imperatives of political correctness in international business are all factors that would have come in the way of a robust Indo-US business relationship if the air had not been cleared at the highest political level in the US about India's suitability and reliability as America's partner in geopolitics. The significance of the nuclear deal for the rest of Indo-US engagement is that it sends an unmistakeable signal that New Delhi and Washington are partners in the kind of engagement that only friends or allies indulge in.
Without the nuclear deal, India may have been able to get fuel supplies for Tarapur from somewhere. At a stretch, India may even have been able to procure nuclear plants from countries which would have found some way of circumventing the nuclear suppliers group as they have done in the past. It is an irony that while these things would have been possible without the nuclear deal, it would really have been much more difficult to sustain an enduring and large-scale corporate interest in India in the long run without signals from the White House that New Delhi is America's friend and partner. Once the Congress has passed the legislation and the president has signed it into law, that unmistakeable message would have gone out to India's advantage.
This column has taken the considered view right from July last year, when the nuclear deal was announced, that the agreement is in India's interest. But this column has also watched with dismay how, after skilfully negotiating its details between July 2005 and Bush's visit to India in March this year, sections of India's civil service and political leadership have shown an unseemly desperation to conclude the deal anyhow and at any price.
Some of that desperation may be born out of a genuine misconception that for India, America is a friend in need. America has no friends, it has only interests, which it is constantly trying to protect and advance. And rightly so, for a superpower. It does not even see the need for friends. Washington only views other countries as instruments for promoting and enhancing its vital interests.
America's attempts to change the goalposts in the nuclear deal are the result of Washington's need to balance its arms control and global non-proliferation interests with its strategic interests in Asia. Unfortunately, within South Block there has not been enough appreciation of these dynamics of big power play.
If Indo-US relations continue to follow the current course and pace, the nuclear deal will, at some time in the not too distant future, become a relatively small element in the overarching framework of ties between New Delhi and Washington. Manmohan Singh realizes this more than anyone else in his government. His nostalgia for the relationship between America's land-grant universities and India's nascent institutions of agricultural learning half a century ago and his keen resolve to usher in another Green Revolution through cooperation with the US in agriculture suggest a vision for Indo-US relations that goes well beyond the nuclear deal.
The Indo-US science and technology cooperation agreement, the bi-national science and technology endowment fund and a standing science and technology joint commission announced during Bush's visit to India, joint efforts against wildlife trafficking, cooperation in public health, especially prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS, and joint cyber security efforts are all pointers to the scope and range of a dynamic bilateral relationship whose potential is only beginning to be tapped. For that matter, if India and the US achieve their target of doubling bilateral trade in three years, that alone will be a major achievement, since America is already India's biggest trading partner and the balance of trade is in India's favour.
In the popular imagination, the nuclear deal will become a mere sideshow if the vistas of Indo-US space co-operation, which is now being considered, acquire the shape of reality. A joint Indo-US space mission, for instance, can dramatically alter the way Indians look at America and is capable of erasing any residual bad blood that may result from criticism in India of the nature and content of the nuclear negotiations. Indeed, eventually, it may be space cooperation that may become the symbol of Indo-US partnership for a long time to come. But that should not obscure the reality that without the nuclear deal as the turning point in the relationship, such an expanded vista in bilateral engagement would have remained an idea and eluded implementation.