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Let’s listen to Mulford

If Barrack Obama is President the nuclear deal will face a potential opponent in the White House rather than an advocate like Bush, writes Karan Thapar.

columns Updated: Apr 02, 2008 16:08 IST

I agree with the American Ambassador and that’s why I’m concerned about the future of the Indo-US nuclear deal. David Mulford has reminded us of a few stark realities we were in danger of ignoring. What worries me is whether his warning will have any effect. I hope it does. Alas, I fear it won’t.

The Ambassador says it’s effectively now or never for the nuclear deal: “If this is not processed in the present Congress it is unlikely that this deal will be offered again to India.” To begin with, the new administration in Washington will not bother about it till at least 2010, because that’s how long it will take to find its feet, fill all the empty jobs and set its priorities. Then, if revived, it will have to run the gauntlet of Congress where the non-proliferation lobby is already stronger and could gain in strength. They could amend, alter and add fresh conditions. Finally, if Barrack Obama is President, the deal will face a potential opponent in the White House rather than an advocate like Bush.

So if we don’t make haste the deal is likely to be lost. But does that matter? The answer on three different counts is yes, an awful lot. First, the deal seeks to end three decades of India’s civil nuclear isolation from the rest of the world. If it doesn’t materialise, that will continue and we will have to develop our nuclear industry alone. Second, the deal will dismantle the regime of sanctions which has denied India access to dual-use technology. If that doesn’t happen India will have to do without technology it urgently needs in fields as varied as agriculture and weather-forecasting. Third, the deal is intended as the vehicle for removing decades of mistrust and suspicion between Washington and Delhi and recognising India’s status internationally. If it fails, many of those suspicions will continue while India’s stature will remain unchanged.

No wonder Mr Mulford says the American people are puzzled by India’s response. Actually, the Ambassador was being euphemistic. It would be more accurate to say they’re bewildered and perhaps even irritated. Just think about it. They’ve changed their laws to accommodate India and are now ready to push the rest of the Nuclear Suppliers Group to follow suit. Despite bitter divisions, Republicans and Democrats united in massive bipartisan majorities to do this. And it’s not that India is a traditional ally they were rewarding. For the last 50 years we’ve criticised and opposed them as often as we could! But instead of thanking Bush we’re questioning his motives, belittling what he’s offered and, worst of all, considering refusing the deal.

The only hope is if this attitude changes, and quickly at that. But will it? While hoping it may, I’m full of doubt. Prakash Karat says the government needs a fresh mandate to pursue the deal. It seems the Left won’t let the deal go ahead this side of the next election. And quite frankly I don’t think the government can change his adamant position.

What about the BJP? Arguably, it could be more responsive to Ambassador Mulford’s warning. Certainly Mr Advani won’t want to come to power in 2009 to find the deal has been lost. But will a BJP change of heart help? Sadly not, because the BJP doesn’t figure in the government’s calculations.

So if the Left remains obstinate the government can only pursue the deal at the cost of its support. Will it? Everything hinges on this. The available indications are not reassuring.

Last week Sharad Pawar said no. He claimed it would not be “rational” to endanger the government’s stability. Earlier both Lalu and Karunanidhi signaled they prefered the government’s longevity to securing the Indo-US nuclear deal. And all you hear from the Congress party is sounds of silence.

In these circumstances it would need Sonia Gandhi to line up alongside Manmohan Singh to push the deal home. As yet there’s no sign of that. But could she be a strong silent supporter?