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Advantage Singh in United States

delhi Updated: Jul 23, 2008 02:24 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Hindustan Times
Indo-US nuclear deal

By staking his government on completing the Indo-US nuclear deal, the Manmohan Singh government has already earned India some points in Washington. Even if Singh had lost the vote of no confidence, says Teresita Schaffer of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, "the reaction in the US would have been: Singh gets credit for trying."

"Washington policymakers understand that the nuclear deal got caught up in Indian domestic politics," says South Asia analyst Lisa Curtis of the conservative Heritage Foundation. But not everyone is so understanding. As New Delhi sank into political gridlock this past year, many in US foreign policy circles argued India was clearly "unready" for a global role. Three reasons are cited.

One, the nuclear deal was begun under the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government and finalised under Singh's reign. If India cannot complete what its own leadership wants, then its credibility in pursuing even its own national interest comes into question. "It will be hard for the US or other countries to take an Indian government seriously," says Ashley Wills, a former number two at the US Embassy in New Delhi and a consultant with US lobby firm WilmerHale.

Two, New Delhi kept increasing its nuclear demands to accommodate the requirements of the department of atomic energy and the Left. As one former State Department advisor noted, "India kept moving the goalposts." The Bush Administration worked overtime to get the US establishment to accept these demands. The perception overseas, says Schaffer, is that "this is an incredible sweetheart deal for India."

The US reaction in case of a defeat, she said, would be "what does it say about India that the government fell over a deal that was so very favourable?" Future US administrations will be reluctant to expend political capital on behalf of India.

Three, the nuclear deal took off in the US not only because of Indophile George W Bush. It had a strong run because many different domestic US interest groups came out in its favour. This included the Pentagon, big business and the Indian-American community.

In Singh's failure, this coalition would break apart and could take years to come together again. Building such coalitions in Washington is very difficult and sustaining them even more so. The most successful has been the Israeli lobby.