India’s Identity Crisis and the U.S. Nuclear Trade Pact

India’s Identity Crisis and the U.S. Nuclear Trade Pact

By Nancy E. Roth

Although the mainstream global news outlets have trained their unblinking collective gaze at China in the run-up to the Olympics, they have barely cast a glance at the profound political changes at work in China’s economic rival, India, over the past year.

India in fact has put on painful display a full-fledged identity crisis since Prime Minister Manmohan Singh introduced the 123 Agreement on civilian nuclear trade his administration had negotiated with the U.S., in the last days of July 2007.

Like the Chinese, Indians are of two or more minds about their growing stature as an economic powerhouse and how that has changed their relationships within the world community. As in China, the expanding prosperity at home in India is welcome, but less so are the new responsibilities and obligations its new economic and cultural ties with the rest of the globe require.

The habitually secretive Chinese government has tried (with steadily decreasing success) to keep its discomfort off the public radar, but in India’s wildly rambunctious and factionalized parliamentary democracy no element of the argument is withheld from scrutiny, no matter how trivial.

Knocking Off the Chip

Indeed, in the lengthy political paralysis over the passage of the Indo-U.S. nuclear agreement that has gripped India this year we have seen a country struggling to come to terms with what it must do to drop its role as a defiant loner and fully integrate into the global mainstream.

Don’t forget, India has made its way without the benefit of political and economic inclusion by the U.S. and other powers since shortly after it exploded its first nuclear device in 1974. Worse, it broke a key nonproliferation taboo by applying civilian nuclear technology obtained from Canada to military use.

It was to prevent that happening again that the Nuclear Suppliers Group was born in 1975. The group enforces the nonproliferation regime by specifically excluding non-signatories of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty from trade in nuclear materials and technology. India has steadfastly refused to participate in the NPT, insisting it must maintain a nuclear weapons capability to protect itself in its geographic location, situated between the nuclear states of China and, now, Pakistan.

Subsequently India has nurtured a go-it-alone chip on its shoulder that some MPs (specifically the Communists and right-wing Hindu ultra-nationalists) think have served it well. India has been a key member of the Nonaligned Movement, which is more about being against established power blocs rather than being in favor of anything. More recently the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) economies seem to be trying to draw together to form their own distinct power bloc.

But in the midst of all this, along comes the Indo-U.S. nuclear trade agreement, which offers India a ticket into the nuclear trade mainstream without the previously required NPT accession. India has had to decide whether it is time to let go of its prolonged—albeit enforced—adolescence and take on the mature responsibilities of IAEA safeguard agreements, including unannounced inspections and a moratorium on nuclear weapons testing. The trade pact is also forcing India to overcome long-standing resentment toward the NSG—the country has often accused the group of enforcing a “nuclear apartheid” policy—and to obtain from it a consensus vote to exempt India from the NPT requirement.

Messy Democracy in Action

This has proven to be more difficult than many initially expected, particularly in the West. Nuclear energy and its issues are only part of the picture of the divided India that has emerged in full view this past year. The nuclear agreement in essence has exposed key underlying issues in the developing economy, which are the true root of the parliamentary crisis that came to a head in late July after months of deadlock over the treaty.

For, apart from India’s desperate need for reliable power supply as well as for the increased international trade and commercial relationships, India’s growing business sector repeatedly has linked the nuclear deal with economic reforms that the Communist parliamentary minority has repeatedly blocked. For the commercial sector the nuclear deal was emblematic of their struggle to liberalize the rules of economic trade. The survival of the Singh administration was for them a matter of keeping India’s economic growth on track.

The administration of P.M. Singh was forced into a vote of confidence after four anti-American Communist parties, which had been key allies of Singh’s tenuous governing coalition, withdrew their support when, against their explicit demands the P.M. finally proceeded to advance the treaty process. Oddly, the ultra-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which though customarily pro-American, was virulently opposed to the treaty because of its weapons testing moratorium provision. Up until the last minutes the vote’s outcome appeared too close to call, yet the Singh administration emerged with a clear majority, which also gave the P.M. a badly needed mandate to take the nuclear treaty forward.

Theatrics during the run-up to the vote guarantee that Singh and his coalition are not yet in the clear. The government and its supporters reportedly used some rather unconventional tactics to attract the votes of fence-sitting small parties, for example agreeing to rename an airport after the father of one minority leader. In another widely reported horse trade the government agreed to secure a high-ranking position in a state government for the son of another leader of a 4- or 5-delegate party in return for a favorable vote. Although the opposition also engaged in similar deal-making, they could argue after the vote that the results were tainted, as the government had “bought” its victory, and lost all “moral authority.”

But although Singh must face down this new challenge he has wasted no time sending his emissaries around the world to plead India’s cause with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) On August 1 IAEA handed India a unanimous vote in favor of a safeguards negotiated earlier this year. What remains to be seen is how well the government can represent its cause to the NSG, and whether that body can be persuaded to change its mind and policy on India.

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