As the Henry J Hyde United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act awaits President George W Bush’s signature later on Monday, critics in India, mainly from the extreme Left and Right, continue to miss the woods for the trees. Their fruitless focus on the proverbial trees — and, indeed, the very leaves and twigs — of the agreement, has blinded them to the enormity of the achievement of the Manmohan Singh government. To get the US to turn its 35-year policy of denying India nuclear technology and materials on its head is something. Especially because India has had to make no concessions about its nuclear weapons programme — the original reason for the US-led global embargo that has crippled our civil nuclear industry.
India needs to access nuclear materials and technology from abroad desperately. The country lacks natural uranium. In fact, it cannot even run its existing reactors at full power with its known reserves. We also lack advanced nuclear technology. While most of the power reactors around the world are of the order of 1,000 MW, the average size of Indian reactors is 220 MW.
Let us be very clear: the US is not in this for the technology or the commerce; they are in it for the politics. American governments traditionally bother much less about promoting their business abroad than their French, German or British counterparts. The main American impulse comes from a desire to build closer ties with India. For the better part of the past 50 years, US policy has undermined Indian security. Despite the enormous fund of public goodwill for the US in India, government-to-government relations have just about been civil. In recent years, the US has woken up to the enormous potential of India — primarily as a counterweight to China — not in a military but in an existential sense.
To overcome historical suspicion of US motives in this country, the Bush administration has come up with this big gift of civil nuclear cooperation. It is not a Trojan horse or a nag with strings attached. The bogey of the deal being an affront to India’s national honour is just that: a bogey. The fact is India has taken the shirt off America’s back on this one. The best indicator of this is the abuse that non-proliferation lobbies are hurling on US legislators for approving this bill.