Indian policy-makers consider the nuclear agreement all-important. They view the larger India-U.S. bilateral relationship through the prism of this agreement and have no soft-fall options if the deal collapses.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned at the televised Senate committee hearing that if the deal fails to go through "all the hostility and suspicion of the past would be redoubled." The reference was to decades of tensions between the two countries when India was on the opposite side of the Cold War.
In the U.S, opposition to the agreement, which permits India to keep and further build its nuclear weapons arsenal, and allows civilian nuclear trade with it to be resumed, is becoming increasingly vocal. "Highly placed" Indian diplomatic sources have been quoted as saying the passage of the special waiver legislation through Congress will be "very difficult."
This is a dramatic change from the situation just two weeks ago, when supporters of the deal were extremely upbeat and predicted it would sail through the Senate.
"Their optimism was high partly because the Indian government has engaged not one, but two, major public relations firms in Washington as lobbyists and because the India caucus in the U.S. Congress, the largest country-specific group of legislators, is considered powerful," says K.P. Fabian, a former Indian ambassador and senior diplomat. "But now, it is clear that the road ahead will be thorny. If the deal doesn't go through quickly, it may collapse altogether."
Both the Manmohan Singh government and the Bush administration have launched a no-holds-barred effort to urge key congressmen to support the deal.
There have been signs of support from Democrats such as John Kerry of Massachusetts and Joseph Biden of Delaware but unless there is clear bipartisan support, it is rare for a controversial major international agreement to pass through Congress.
One reason for this is the coming mid-term election, which the Democrats hope will gain them congressional seats. They are reluctant to hand an easy foreign policy victory to President Bush in advance of the elections and thus lose a chance to reshape the deal under a future Congress over which they exercise greater control.
But, "A far more important reason would be the misgivings which many U.S. lawmakers have about the deal because of its implications for the U.S. position on nuclear non-proliferation," holds Achin Vanaik, professor of international relations and global politics at Delhi University. "Evidently, the Bush administration has not addressed these concerns adequately. It was in too much of a hurry to push the deal through."
On Monday, The Washington Post reported, quoting 20 senior U.S. and Indian officials as sources, that Bush and Rice did not consult the U.S. foreign-affairs bureaucracy, influential congressmen, White House staff or government nuclear specialists. They unilaterally executed a major shift in U.S. nuclear policy and relations with India through a "big bang" approach rather than an incremental one in recruiting India as a key ally against China, the paper reported.
In the process, they overruled their own nuclear specialists, who wanted the deal so designed that it would limit India's nuclear weapons potential and place all of its power reactors under international safeguards. This unilateral decision-making produced resentment now being heard in the U.S. domestic political discourse.
Indian policy-makers probably overestimated likely support for the deal on Capitol Hill and drove a hard bargain. Both on July 18 last year and March 2 this year, they managed to have their way in last-minute down-to-the-wire tough negotiations.
They insisted that India must have the same rights and privileges as the nuclear weapons-states (NWSs) recognized by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), although it is not a signatory to it. And they succeeded in keeping eight of India's 22 power reactors outside international safeguards, in addition to exempting fast-breeder reactors and military-nuclear facilities.
This led a senior U.S. official to say: "The Indians were incredibly greedy," a senior U.S. official said. "They were getting 99 percent of what they asked for and still they pushed for 100."
These hardball tactics are now extracting a price. With major Indian facilities exempted from safeguards, it is hard for Bush to claim that the deal is meant to restrain India while bringing it into the international nuclear mainstream.
The staunchly pro-Israel lobby in the U.S. may have further complicated matters. Some of its members, like Rep. Tom Lantos, are threatening to reject the deal unless New Delhi radically revises its established positions on Iran, Palestine and the Non-Aligned Movement and demonstrates complete loyalty to the U.S.
Complementing this lobby is the anti-Castro Cuban-American pressure-group, which would like India to disassociate itself from the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) whose next summit is to be held in Havana. India has been a prominent leader of the NAM.
"Bush might still be able to overcome all opposition to the deal," says a former official of India's National Security Council, who insisted on anonymity. "But this will involve closed-door discussions with key lawmakers, some inducements, especially to please their constituencies, and immense diplomatic skill. It's not clear that Bush with his plummeting acceptance ratings can muster all this."
Thus, it seems likely that many lawmakers in both the 18-member Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the 49-member House International Relations Committee will approve amendments to the bills that the administration has introduced in the two houses of Congress.
However, India Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, on a recent visit to the U.S., made it clear that amendments will kill the deal.
The nuclear agreement is viewed with a good deal of suspicion by the Indian public, which does not trust the U.S. Public pressure compelled Manmohan Singh to disclose to the Indian parliament details of the deal on separating India's civilian nuclear facilities from military ones.
"He will find it impossible to change the terms of the agreement without attracting serious criticism and charges of selling out to the U.S.," says Vanaik.
Even if the deal goes through Congress, it is likely to face opposition later in the year from the 45-state Nuclear Suppliers' Group, especially from Japan, China, Germany, South Africa, Brazil and Argentina.
The Indian government has no fall-back strategy to cope with the deal's possible collapse.
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April 5, 2006 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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