In the end it was not quite as easy as 123. But failure to reach an agreement was not an option that either the Bush administration in Washington or the National Security Advisor MK Narayanan was willing to exercise. And the deal they have arrived at is clearly a positive one which the government can confidently take to its allies and the Opposition because it substantially meets the commitments the Prime Minister made to Parliament. Vital Indian concerns, on prior rights to reprocess spent fuel from safeguarded civilian reactors, on assured fuel supplies for the life of civilian atomic power reactors, fallback safeguards and, crucially, not going beyond its voluntary moratorium on not testing a nuclear device have been adequately addressed.
This kind of agreement and the speed at which it has materialised is unique. In keeping with the principles of negotiations, the envelope kept getting pushed, before anyone realised how audacious the aims were. India will be the only country that gets to retain and pursue its nuclear weapons programme while getting the benefits of nuclear collaboration on an equal footing with other countries, despite not being a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The initially critical scientific community’s concerns have been addressed with a clear mention in the draft text that the bilateral civil nuclear agreement will not impinge on India’s strategic programme or the indigenous fast breeder reactor programme.
The agreement will herald India’s return with honour to the international nuclear fraternity and allow it to freely access its nuclear fuel requirements after a three-decade break, since India was outlawed for its ‘peaceful nuclear experiment’ in 1974. Having carried the deal to the level of near closure, the government now needs to capitalise on the goodwill generated and move to quickly strike an accord with the International Atomic Energy Agency on safeguards to specifically meet India’s nuclear weapons status and seal an agreement with the Nuclear Suppliers Group so that nuclear commerce can resume by year-end. Among other things, the agreement also indicates a paradigm shift in India’s negotiating strategy and skills. New Delhi has been able to deal with the US from a definite position of strength and the understanding that the latter’s need for an agreement was at least as urgent and as great as India’s.