Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was sceptical of the India-US nuclear deal in the run-up to the joint statement in July 2005 declaring civil nuclear cooperation as he was unsure of its impact on domestic politics.
Contrary to popular perception, it was then external affairs minister Natwar Singh who was far more enthusiastic and worked with US interlocutors to swing the PM around, getting his consent at a critical breakfast meeting with then US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.
It was not as if the PM was not convinced of the merits of the deal. He just was not sure it would sell in India. Or so it seemed to Rice, who had set the grounds for altering relations with India in a policy paper in 2000.Her book, No Higher Honor, set for release later this month, presents the first insider account yet of the negotiations leading to the India-US nuclear deal in 2005 and 2006, now so pivotal to the changed relations between the two countries.
But when it actually came to changing the situation, Rice says she found the going tougher than she had imagined. Crucial to the thinking in the US then was — and she doesn’t say so — that India would jump at the nuclear deal.
Some in India did, but not Singh. He was wary about how it would play out for the coalition government, including the Left parties. Of course, once the deal got rolling, Singh threw everything behind it — including the very survival of his government.
The setting was July 2005. India and the US were to sign a framework for the deal. And things looked on course. Rice decided to call on Natwar Singh in his room at Willard Hotel in Washington to discuss the terms.
She was just being careful. The state department, she says in her book, was abuzz with talk about the deal. She preferred a quieter place to wrap it up. “I also thought it a sign of respect to go to him,” she says.
But something was wrong. “Natwar was adamant,” says Rice. “He wanted the deal. But the prime minister wasn’t sure he could sell it in New Delhi.” The two foreign ministers discussed the deal but they could only push so far, and not beyond.
“Finally, Natwar said he would take the document to the prime minister and let me know.” But news from the Indian camp was not good. Singh was not buying. And Rice was ready to give up: if this is what the Indians want, so be it.
“Too bad,” then US President George W Bush told her when she called to let him know. Early next morning, Rice decided to give it another shot. But the prime minister refused to see her. Natwar Singh told Rice the prime minister didn’t want to see her because he didn’t want to say no to her. “‘I wasn’t ready to surrender. ‘Ask him again,’ I pleaded.” Natwar Singh tried again. The PM relented, and agreed to see her.
And here was how she pitched it: “Mr Prime Minister, this is the deal of a lifetime. You and President Bush are about to put US-India relations on a fundamentally new footing. I know it’s hard for you, but it’s hard for the president (Bush) too. I didn’t come here to negotiate language — only to ask you to tell your officials to get this done, and let’s get it done before you see the president.”
Singh capitulated. “Prime Minister Singh, a mild mannered man who speaks slowly and softly,” says Rice, “pushed back but eventually gave the nod to his people to try again.” And they did, with remarkable impact. The deal was done.