The political capital of two world leaders and the public interest of the world’s two largest democracies have been exhausted by the effort to complete the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal. No surprise then that the culmination of three-and-a-half years of political drama has been treated as back page news. Some of the main sources of dissent against the N-deal continued to bedevil the agreement till the last. President George W. Bush was obliged to say that congressional language did not affect guarantees of nuclear fuel supplies to India. New Delhi insisted that the agreement doesn’t curb India’s right to conduct a test. Small-print quibblers continue to insist that both statements are false.
The truth is that the thicket of agreements that constitutes the N-deal is so densely written, so buffered with ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’, and is so vague in places, that there is a fair amount of leeway when it comes to interpretation. What is clear, and tangibly so following the French N-agreement, is that they allow India to have both N-weapons and participate in civilian nuclear trade. This was not an option open to India before the 123 agreement.
The greatest amount of grey surrounds three aspects of the agreement: the provision of certain nuclear technologies, the response to future Indian testing and the guarantees of nuclear fuel supplies. The US and India had to stretch language to its limits to bridge the gap between America’s entrenched non-proliferation policy and India’s insistence on insurance against any negative turn.
In these areas, the main accomplishment of Indian negotiators has been to incorporate wording that provides a future Oval Office resident options that favour India’s interests. In other words, what will determine interpretation will have less to do with specific wording and will be more about the future state of Indo-US relations. This is nothing unusual; it is par for the course in negotiations between countries. India has won itself some remarkable concessions. Extracting the maximum from these will depend on circumstance, but even more so on how well India plays its cards regarding the US in the decades to come.