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Failed N-deal would damage India's power hopes

The collapse of the Indo-US nuclear deal would be an enormous setback for Indian aspirations for a greater global status, reports Pramit Pal Chaudhuri.

india Updated: Aug 30, 2007 18:01 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

The collapse of the Indo-US nuclear deal would be an enormous setback for Indian aspirations for a greater global status. The more obvious results would be a continuation of India’s stunted nuclear energy programme and technology sanctions.

The more important consequence, says Dennis Kux, author of the authoritative history of the Indo-US relationship “Estranged Democracies,” would be that “people will question whether India is really ready for the international big leagues.”

At a time when any bookshop in the world carries half-a-dozen books on the rise of India, the end of the deal would resurrect those voices who have argued India cannot be anything but the basketcase of Asia. European diplomats say the repeated crises that have beset the Indo-US nuclear deal have led many foreign observers to question “whether India is really ready to be a great power.”

The deal symbolically demonstrated India’s arrival on the global stage, says Lisa Curtis, South Asia expert of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “The leftists seem to have missed the fact” that a collapse of the deal because of domestic Indian conflict “would be a setback for India’s reputation as an emerging global power.”

Anupam Srivastava, nonproliferation expert at the University of Georgia, agrees, “The deal’s failure would signal to the US and the world that India still lacks confidence to play a major role in the international stage that it lacks the confidence to pursue and safeguard its interests in dealing with the major powers of the world.”

Among other things, India would be seen to have undermined some its own self-proclaimed foreign policy goals.

First, New Delhi has fought to get the rights of a de facto nuclear power for 40 years. When it asked traditional friends like Russia and France to help, they refused. China was hostile to anything that Pakistan could not get. Even the US said no – until George W Bush’s second term in office. As the Indian ambassador to the US, Ronen Sen, recently pointed out, India being granted a single-nation exemption to an international regime “is absolutely unprecedented” in the history of diplomacy going back to the 16th century.

Second, India has long sought to delink its international fortunes from Pakistan. This deal did this, in spades. The left may think the deal is bad, but Pakistan is begging the US for something similar. Says Kux, “For the first time since 1954, the US has undertaken an accord with major security implications for India and rejected Pakistan’s request for a similar agreement.”

It would signal to the world that it is pointless to do big favours for New Delhi. That Bush expended an enormous amount of political capital and time for nothing would undermine India’s credibility not only in Washington circles but other capitals as well.

“It will send a signal to future administrations that Indian governments cannot be counted on to get support for agreements that it accepts,” says AK Mago of the US India Political Action Forum.

Observers say India’s national communist leadership has opposed almost every accomplishment of rising India. Yet New Delhi’s ability to be an influential global player will be decided by exactly the economic and diplomatic successes the left opposes.

“What the left is doing is trying to break the connection India and the US and to restore a world that ended in 1991. That’s a world in which India exercised foreign policy independence of sorts, but had relatively little impact beyond the subcontinent,” says Teresita Schaffer, South Asian analyst at the Center for International and Strategic Studies.

“As Chairman Mao would have said,” says Stephen Cohen of the Brookings Institution, “the left is lifting up a nuclear rock only to drop it on their feet.”

Kux, looking for a historical parallel, says the premature death of the Indo-US nuclear deal could go down as the Indian “equivalent of the US Senate’s rejection of the Versailles Treaty in 1916 – although the Singh government, unlike Woodrow Wilson, has sought to meet critics more than halfway on the 123 Agreement.”