The gloves are off in the negotiations on the so-called 123 Agreement, the next step towards operationalizing the Indo-US nuclear deal. Ending the pretence that all is well with the talks between the high profile US undersecretary of state for political affairs, Nicholas Burns, and the foreign secretary, Shivshankar Menon, India has finally told the Americans to take it or leave it. Not since the era of V.K. Krishna Menon has any Indian government representative publicly told the Americans where to get off. S. Jaishankar, South Block’s negotiator for the 123 Agreement, did in Washington on Monday. Before getting to what Jaishankar said this week, it is necessary to draw the setting for his remarks. Once every two years, leading proponents and negotiators of non-proliferation from Beijing to Moscow to Geneva to New York gather in Washington under the umbrella of a conference organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The last such conference in 2005 was addressed by Mohamed El Baradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the glow of the Nobel Peace Prize still very much on his persona. This week, the keynote speaker was the British foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, who last year authored a white paper on her country’s nuclear deterrent, the smallest among the five nuclear weapons powers recognized under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
Jaishankar, now high commissioner to Singapore and a doctoral degree-holder in nuclear diplomacy, was invited to speak at the latest conference on the subject: “Forging Non-Proliferation Consensus After US-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation”. Naturally, the Q&A after Jaishankar’s speech turned to the 123 negotiations and one member of the audience wanted to know when Indian and US negotiators hoped to bridge the gaps in the proposed agreement. Without a moment’s pause, the Indian diplomat answered: “As soon as the other side agrees with me, the gap will be closed”. There were gasps in the large Atrium. Officials from the US state department, who were present, squirmed in their seats, disbelief clearly writ large on their faces.
In the last nine years since India and the United States of America began talking on subjects they never ventured into before, it was always the Americans who broke the bilateral understanding not to use the media to press an advantage in the negotiations between the two sides. For a change, India decided to give Washington a taste of its own medicine.
That was not all. “We do not envisage any commitment beyond the July 18 statement,” Jaishankar said, referring to the joint statement made by the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and the US president, George W. Bush, at the White House in 2005 in answer to another question. No new demands, he warned, no shifting of goal posts. In his prepared speech that preceded the Q&A, the Indian negotiator emphatically stated that “the July 18 understanding was a difficult and delicate compromise. Any attempt at rewriting it would endanger a carefully crafted agreement.”
He made it clear that there could be no compromise on the twin issues of enrichment and reprocessing and that India was seeking country-specific exemptions. “The bottom line is that the resumption of international cooperation in civilian nuclear energy cannot be at the cost of India’s strategic programme. Any expectations to the contrary will have to be firmly dispelled.”
Does all this mean that the nuclear deal with the US is history' No. Jaishankar came to Washington with a clutch of olive branches too. He offered to make India party to a new global consensus on non-proliferation, a consensus under which New Delhi was prepared to assume all the responsibilities of a state with advanced nuclear technology. “India brings value to this consensus at a time when it is under serious test.” But, he warned, “India cannot be expected to be a partner and a target at the same time of the non-proliferation consensus.” Then there were sweeteners. As the global nuclear industry attempts to revive itself, India can be a significant factor in that revival if the nuclear deal goes through. There was an attempt to woo those who are enamoured of Green, as public opinion in the US gradually shifts in favour of those who want action against global warming. “Global environmental challenges cannot be met without greater Indian reliance on nuclear energy,” Jaishankar warned.
The shift in New Delhi’s attitude is bound to disappoint a powerful pro-US lobby within the Indian government and outside, elements which have criticized the nuclear scientists, the indigenous defence researchers, indeed, anyone who was against giving in to Washington’s demands. But the reality is that the latest gamble of the Manmohan Singh government may just pay off. The state department, indeed every branch of the Bush executive, is haemorrhaging with political appointees leaving the sinking ship in droves. With each passing day, the administration is losing a bit more of its will to stand up and be counted. And with Congressional elections next year, those who seek re-election need Indian American money. Even the presidential candidates! If India plays its cards right, it may get away with what it wants on the nuclear issue. Although that may not have been the calculation of the United Progressive Alliance government when it changed its strategy on the negotiations and decided this week to go public with its bottom line in the talks. Domestic compulsions may have played their part: witness the bizarre protest by the Left parties over the arrival of nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, USS Nimitz, in Chennai, several years after such vessels began calling at Indian ports.
At the same time, the external affairs minister, Pranab Mukherjee, has been speaking out about India’s demands on the 123 Agreement, albeit with diplomatic reasoning. But Mukherjee has also been redefining India’s relations with Iran. Less than a month ago, intervening in the deliberations in Hamburg at the Asia-Europe meeting — to which India has been admitted — Mukherjee shocked the Americans by describing Iran as “a factor for regional security.” That is not the way Washington views Tehran. The external affairs minister categorically rejected “the use or the threat of use of force or sanctions” against Iran. “It is only engagement which will enable us to see that Iran views following its international obligations as being in its pragmatic self-interest”.
Not surprisingly, within hours of Jaishankar speaking his mind at the Carnegie conference, The Hill, a Congressional newspaper read by virtually everyone on Capitol Hill carried a story on how India’s relations with Iran could derail the nuclear deal. So the battlelines are clearly being drawn and New Delhi has at long last realized that being soft will not pay.
India may also have been convinced in recent weeks that the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group, which controls global nuclear commerce, is a long, long way from any consensus about engaging India as a partner. NSG deliberations are usually held without any fanfare or publicity and decisions are by consensus.
Peter C. Potman, who was deputy head of the Dutch foreign ministry’s nuclear affairs and non-proliferation division, is now posted at the Netherlands embassy in Washington and he deals with both Asia and non-proliferation. Potman spoke at the Carnegie conference and it was probably for the first time that any NSG member government has said anything in public about what is going on in the group over the Indo-US nuclear deal. He said the group had not even started discussing the nuclear deal in any detail. Potman’s view was that an NSG consensus on India was unlikely unless New Delhi agreed to “strategic restraint”: that is adhering to the comprehensive test ban treaty and an end to fissile material production. At the end of it all, he envisaged a process under which the NSG would not collectively negotiate with India, but would allow its member-states to do their own deals with New Delhi.