Noted US strategic expert Ashley J Tellis has termed the May 1998 Pokhran nuclear tests conducted by India as the turning point for consolidating New Delhi's position on the global stage as also its relations with Washington.
In an exclusive interview, Tellis who played a key role in negotiating the July 18, 2005 Indo-US civilian nuclear energy cooperation agreement, expressed the hope that its ratification by the US Congress would be cleared before the November Congressional elections without any fundamental changes.
Tellis, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, also spoke on a broad range of issues, including Indo-US relations vis-à-vis China and the current stalemate in India-Pakistan ties.
1998 Pokhran Tests
In 1998, India carried nuclear tests, for which it received worldwide condemnation and US imposed sanctions. Now, in 2006 we are dealing with US on the very same nuclear subject. So, in today's scenario how do you see the 1998 nuclear tests carried by India?
In retrospect, I think that the tests that India carried out in 1998 turned out to be an important element that consolidated India's important position on the global stage. In 1998, we could not make that judgment.
But looking back in retrospect, I feel that 1998 was a turning point. India's rise is not only due to detonation of the bomb, but first and foremost India's transition from a low growth economy to a high growth economy.
Moreover in the post 9/11 environment people have recognised that a country with such diversity still holds together in such a robust and resilient manner.
Indo-US civilian nuclear deal
It has been a year since the July 18 statement was agreed upon by India and the US. So the pertinent question is when would the deal finally get ratified?
Senator Richard Lugar has already said that the vote is most likely to take place after the August recess in the Congress, and in my opinion, if everything goes well, it is most likely to be in place by mid-September.
As you use the term that "if everything goes well", so what are the major irritants still left?
There are two major irritants, a) the issue of process and b) issue of substance. Right now, the Senate calendar is full. However, the Senate leader has committed to President Bush that they would find some time before November when Congressional elections are scheduled to be held.
On the issue of substance, there have been different elements that have been either expansion or deviation from the July 18 statement.
My observation is that at the end the bill, which one would get would be clearly much approximately be same of the July 18 agreement. There would be no fundamental changes that would require re-negotiations.
But Lugar has recently said that the diplomats of both the sides (India and US) should not be adamant to the changes that the bill would incorporate during its legislation?
The changes brought by the Committee are mere expressions. Not one of them is mutually imperative that bind India. In my opinion India should be re-assured.
But what if these expressions turn out to be mandatory ones during the course of legislation?
It is highly unlikely that Congress would try to add the mandatory clause to the proposed changes by the committee. Yes, in theory it may exist, but it is highly unlikely though.
So, no major changes?
I do not expect of any major changes. Finally, it will be no different from what we had agreed. If anything, it could be improvement, much closer to what President Bush wants.
There have been criticisms of the deal both in India and US. Why, according to you, are there criticisms from both the sides?
Attracting flak from both the sides shows that there is something right. In my judgment, both the governments of India and US have negotiated a very delicate piece of legislation that walks a very fine line. And, that there are people on both the sides who feel that there could be deviations that attract criticisms, I feel that both these are highly exaggerated criticisms.
In the US we are criticised of making concessions. Yes, we are making concessions, but we believe we are justified. On Indian side, questions are being raised on its weapon programme but India maintains its programme. Indian foreign policy remains independent. So, I believe that these are exaggerated fears.
You say that the deal does not ban India from detonating nuclear bombs, but at the same time, there exists a US law that calls for imposing sanctions if any country outside the five permanent nuclear states (P-5) detonates a bomb. Why would you allow such a dichotomy to exist that leads to ambiguity?
The US law that imposes sanctions predates the given agreement and that portion of the law is un-amendable. According to the July 18 statement, the focus was on providing opportunity to India in expanding the civilian nuclear cooperation, to which US agreed. The question of India carrying a nuclear test was never a part of the discussion.
So, it has nothing to do with India carrying out a nuclear test?
I think it is incorrect way of describing the situation. However, US law also gives the President the power to ask the Congress to remove the sanctions imposed. Whether the President does that, we cannot say.
So, if India carries out a nuclear test, the nuclear cooperation would be called off?
If India were to detonate a bomb than based on the strength of the Indo-US relation existing during that period, the decision would be taken. No person in US can assure that whether President would behave in this way or other. India finally has to decide when it decides to conduct the test, whether its decision to test is worth the cost that it has to inevitably bear.
Future of Indo-US ties
So what is the future of the Indo-US relations?
In my opinion, the future of the relations is extremely bright. There are three reasons for it. In recent years the principle national interests are getting more aligned on the issues of terror threats, weapons of mass destructions and energy security.
In the area of economy US is clear that our growth increase depends on our ability to connect with the Indian economy. I expect that in twenty years time the trade between the two countries would increase many times.
Does China appear in the scheme of the things?
Absolutely, China appears in the US' scheme of things. Both as a potential economic competitor and possibly our future rival. But I would like to say that Indo-US relations are broader.
Whether China existed or not, there were sufficient strategic imperatives that would lead to develop strong Indo-US ties. I would like to emphasise on economy again. The low cost of labour and the low cost of innovations of Indian economy make it therefore a perfect complimentary to US economy.
So, the US would like to see India as a subordinate ally?
Whether India would turn as a subordinate ally of US or an equal ally depends on India's own economic performance. If India sustains an economic growth in capacity to US, it would turn as an equal ally. But of its economy falters its quest for equality falters. We cannot decide India's status as US has only a marginal role in India emerging as a great power.
On India's bid to UNSC's permanent member
What are the chances that India gets the permanent member seat in the United Nation Security Council (UNSC)?
India is definitely first or the most significant candidate for UNSC. If we look at the criteria as said by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Under Secretary Burns, India fulfills all those set criteria, but right now, the US is keener about reforms of the United Nations. In my opinion, putting UNSC reform before UN reforms would be like putting the cart before the horse.
Looking at the issue today, I cannot imagine a situation that India cannot be a natural candidate.
How do you see the recent events in the Indo-Pak relations?
I think it is regrettable that India and Pakistan relation are facing once again a terrific pressure as a result of the recent attacks.
There is no question in our mind that the attacks in Mumbai was a dastardly act and that no matter what the peoples' or political gripes may be, there is no justification for taking the lives of the innocent people.
Do you think that India was correct in postponing the diplomatic talks with Pakistan after the attack?
We recognise India's stance considering the pressure it has been receiving from the domestic front.
It could be nice that India shares the evidence with international world which would become clear as India completes its investigation as there is nothing that would help India case much better than backing up their assertion with the evidence of the attack.
We should be very cautious in attributing the sources of violence to any group or country because there are political consequences attached to it.
And Pakistan, what should it do?
Yes, the Pakistan state owes to its own people to try and clear out the cesspools of terror from its territory. Though it is easier said than done but I think for all General Musharraf has tried to some extent.
He has not fully succeeded or has not been efficient, but he recognises more than any other Pakistani leader that Pakistan cannot survive as a respectable member in international committee if the cesspool of terror continues to exist.
So, from here, how should both countries go forward?
This provides both countries an opportunity to take stock of what kind of relations they can have. For India, I think it provides an opportunity to think creatively, that what they can do to help Pakistan in removing terror.
For Pakistan, it gives the opportunity to start thinking that what it must do to prevent such forces from operating in its territory across the border.
This postponement has given both the countries necessary time for reflections.