In 1999, President Bill Clinton ended America’s decades-old strategic tilt towards Pakistan when it forced Islamabad to withdraw its troops following the Kargil blunder.
On Thursday, the US, led by President George W. Bush, will nudge the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in Vienna to change its guidelines to permit civilian nuclear commerce with India. The NSG is a 45-nation informal club that controls international nuclear trade.
In the nine years since Kargil, the nuclear deal is the most visible demonstration of Washington’s good will, and a belated recognition that India is a player on the world stage.
“America has bent over backwards to accommodate India on the civil nuclear deal,” Lalit Mansingh, former ambassador to Washington, told the Hindustan Times on Wednesday.
A strategic tilt in New Delhi’s favour, it’s something that Indians, accustomed to Washington’s Cold War games, have taken time to come to terms with.
“We are fairly optimistic about getting the NSG waiver,” a senior government functionary said, as Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon and Special Envoy Shyam Saran lobbied the NSG in Vienna ahead of Thursday’s meeting. “It might need another meeting,” he said, adding that the government would not agree to clauses like India should not conduct further nuclear tests, an issue that has become a political hot potato.
NSG members Austria, Switzerland, New Zealand and Ireland may oppose the deal, the government believes, and second NSG meeting could well be required. But India will get there.
“I think eventually it will go in our favour. We will, of course, meet with some resistance,” Mansingh said. That America is changing its domestic law for a country is something that has not happened before, he said. “It’s quite unique.”
In an interview, National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan talked about India’s prospects: “We have a small number (of countries) worried about non-proliferation. If we can get over that, we are over the hill.”
There's a lot at stake for the Manmohan Singh government, which chose to divorce its Left allies rather than let the deal die. The feeling in the government was that an India, hobbled by domestic politics, could never be a serious contender for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
It's ironical that the process of bringing India into the global mainstream began only after the Pokhran-II nuclear tests in May 1998.
After a brief period of sanctions, the US realised that it had to take India's security concerns and power ambitions on board. Little is likely to change whether Barack Obama or John McCain occupy the White House next year.
"If we had not tested, to get support from the major powers for our nuclear programme, we would have had to sign the NPT (Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty)," former NSA Brajesh Mishra told Hindustan Times on the 10th anniversary of the Pokhran tests.
All eyes will be on Vienna Thursday and Friday.