After a year and a half of courtship, President George W. Bush came to Delhi and signed an agreement with the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, on March 1. Under it, India promised to divide its nuclear reactors into civil and military ones and to put the former under the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency. It promised not to carry out nuclear tests, and to abide by all the restrictions applicable under the missile technology control regime and controls on proliferation of nuclear technology that the five nuclear powers have agreed to apply to themselves. In return, the United States of America undertook to supply nuclear fuel to the Tarapur power plant, to cooperate with India on civil nuclear technology and to persuade other nuclear powers to change the international control regimes and accommodate India. While they were at it, the two leaders also agreed to initiate or enhance cooperation in ten other areas such as rural education, AIDS and prevention of terrorism.
The basic concession India got under this agreement is that the nuclear non-proliferation treaty requires its signatories to place all their reactors under IAEA’s surveillance, and in effect, not to use any of the spent fuel for making nuclear bombs. Under the Indo-US agreement, India can keep some reactors outside the IAEA discipline. It can keep the bombs it has made; whether it can make any more is left unspecified, but it cannot explode any more.
The two bills in Congress enshrining the agreement contain some additional restrictions which have caused concern in India. But the passage of legislation broadly embodying the agreement is pretty certain, and so, therefore, is US commitment. The Indian Constitution does not require inter-state agreements to be approved by the parliament. So the agreement is more or less in place. But it is at the centre of a political hurricane; the Indian government has been under vicious attacks from political enemies, partners and the media.
All parties in this debate behave as if Manmohan Singh is the sole initiator or perpetrator of this agreement. It suits the opposition to have a real and present culprit. And the government, which considers the agreement to be a great achievement, is happy to take all the blame. But the truth is that Manmohan Singh has only concluded a process that was started by the previous government.
This agreement has been in the making for seven years. Soon after India’s nuclear ceremony in 1998, Jaswant Singh began his serial conversations with Nelson Strobridge Talbott III — known to all as Strobe Talbott — and tried to persuade him that the Indian bombs were a reality and that the US should adjust itself to it. This argument did not carry with the Clinton regime. But even before he was elected, George Bush had identified a potential ally in India. Once he became president, Jaswant Singh’s efforts bore fruit. The first was the joint statement of Bush and Vajpayee in November 2001. After two years of negotiation, it led to the next steps in strategic partnership agreed in January 2004. They included cooperation in civilian nuclear energy, civilian space programmes and missile defence; what India promised in return was that it would institute effective export controls on nuclear material and technology, and that it would not use technology it was to get from the US to advance its nuclear weapons programme. NSSP foreshadowed the Bush-Manmohan Singh agreement of March this year. Jaswant Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee could beat their chests today and take credit for this agreement. But the current BJP party line is mindless opposition, so these otherwise sane leaders have to disown their own achievements and attack Manmohan Singh for following in their footsteps. The United Progressive Alliance government could not get NSSP translated into concrete changes in US law and policy. For one thing, Vajpayee unwisely brought in Yashwant Sinha as foreign minister; the momentum in Indo-US relations was lost as a result. For another, persuading US legislators was a different game from negotiations with the administration. Emollient, Anglophone Manmohan Singh has played it better; the March agreement is on the way to being embodied in legislation by the US Congress.
Of course, it cannot be proved that the March agreement is one that the BJP potentates would have signed. And no one but a government flunkey would argue that it is the best that could be achieved. The merits of the agreement can be discussed endlessly, for no agreement can be proved to be both ideal and feasible. It is the result of a bargain between two countries — it is bound to be a compromise that serves the interests of neither completely.
And for that reason, I do not think it is clever of the government to engage with the opposition on the merits of the agreement. The agreement does place constraints on the government’s future freedom of manoeuvre. There is no way to counter an opponent who asserts, however intemperately, that the government has sold out the interests of the country.
The prime minister has not been voluble or vehement in its defence; sometimes he has even sounded as if he was part of the opposition. Maybe he senses that the government cannot win the argument on points. But a prime minister cannot sign such an important agreement and then distance himself from it. He has not only to defend it, but he has also to find the most favourable vantage point from which to do so.
A nuclear reconciliation agreement is an advance, but not one worth laying down one’s life for. It takes on significance only as part of a broader vision. Such a vision was embodied, however imperfect, however unclear, in NSSP. It was spelt out in even bigger letters when George Bush told the prime minister that the US would help India become a major world power in the 21st century. What did he mean' What would the US do for India' Manmohan Singh should have striven to put content into that promise, and used it to persuade his countrymen to accept a radical change in foreign policy.
Admittedly, a man of caution would think twice before shouting India-Amrika bhai bhai. First, the US unseated Saddam Hussein, a friend of India, and occupied Iraq. Now it is backing the mass killings and destruction Israel has unleashed upon Lebanon. But as Manmohan Singh must know from long experience, a prime minister must take decisions on balance of considerations; he cannot afford to have sensitive morals. If he thinks an alliance with the US is in the national interest, he must embrace it with all its consequences; and he must defend and glorify it with all the eloquence at his command. A prime minister does not always have a strong grip on the government. But he has unlimited access to public eyes and ears; what he says can have far-reaching influence if he knows how to spin words, weave stories and carry people with him. In a sense, words are all he has; and coming from him, words could change the world. And changing the world is the business leaders are in; there are any number of mediocrities around to run it.