Stupid idea

By Gwynne Dyer
  • Published 5.11.07

The response of the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, made perfectly good sense. If his allies in parliament were willing to bring the government down to block the nuclear deal with the United States of America, he would drop the deal. “One has to live with certain disappointments,” he said, adding, “we are not a one-issue government. The deal not coming through is not the end of life.”

Much odder was the response in Washington. State department spokesperson, Tom Casey, was the very soul of discretion, saying that while the US would like the agreement to be ratified as soon as possible, he would not tell Indians how to manage their internal affairs. Former secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, warned that India’s failure to implement the nuclear deal with the US could raise questions over its trustworthiness, and might sabotage New Delhi’s campaign for a permanent seat in the United Nations security council. Treasury secretary, Hank Paulson, on a visit to India, called it “a very important deal” and urged India to expedite it. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, warned that the deal needed to be ratified by year’s end to avoid “damage” to the relationship between the two countries.

Who would have dreamt that so many important Americans would want to help India take its rightful place as one of the 21st century’s superpowers? The chorus of concern for India’s future status was heart-warming, but the reality is that the US has its own strategies in which India is just a pawn. All the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger lamentation in Washington about India’s lost opportunity covers a deep frustration that the Indians are finally baulking at Washington’s plans.

Stupid idea

Since the late Nineties, strategists of all political stripes in Washington have identified China as America’s emerging strategic rival, and have fixed on an alliance with India, the other rising Asian economic giant, as the solution to the problem. The Bush administration has invested huge diplomatic resources in luring India into a de facto military alliance with the US, and its efforts seemed to be rewarded in 2005 when the two countries signed a “ten-year military cooperation agreement”. But India’s main reward for signing up was the nuclear deal.

Ever since India’s first test of a “peaceful nuclear explosive” in 1974, its civil nuclear industry has faced an international trade embargo on nuclear technology and fuel that was initiated and largely enforced by the US. India’s string of nuclear weapons tests in 1998 led to an even harsher embargo. Killing the embargo was Washington’s quid pro quo for India’s membership in what amounts to an anti-Chinese alliance.

The negotiations took five years, and getting the necessary legal changes on the hyper-sensitive issue of selling nuclear technology and fuel to India through the US Congress has already taken two more. Now, at the final stage, and for entirely discreditable reasons, various Indian political parties have decided to block the deal.

The main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which actually began the negotiations with the US, now opposes the deal just because it is the opposition. And the small communist parties that keep the Congress-led government in power with their votes are mainly motivated by their traditional anti-Americanism.

Never mind. It doesn’t matter what the motives of the Indian communists and the BJP are. The point is that they are crippling an alliance that threatens to drag Asia into a new cold war. Without the nuclear deal at its heart, the emerging military alliance between the US and India will be vulnerable to any change of the political wind in Washington or New Delhi. This is good news for anyone who thinks that surrounding China militarily and feeding Beijing’s fears is a really stupid idea.