If the Vajpayee government’s attempts to entice Washington to allow Tarapore to restock on nuclear fuel are included, the present atomic tango between India and the US has been going on for over four years. During that time, the tempo of the dance had increased dramatically. What began as an attempt to save an ailing reactor became a drive to find India a seat at the nuclear high table. Today in Vienna, the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group will meet to debate whether India will or will not get that seat.
The past three years of mind-numbing Indo-US nuclear talks, starting with the separation plan to the safeguards agreement, have been little more than preparatory work for the NSG debate. Even the remaining vote in the US Congress will be little more than the political equivalent of dotting ‘i’s and crossing ‘t’s.
After such a long haul, it has been almost forgotten why the NSG debate is the pinnacle of the nuclear deal. It is the NSG guidelines that convert the principles of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty into the hard reality of sanctions that deny India nuclear fuel and technology from the rest of the world. The NSG is the high temple of nuclear apartheid and, if everything goes well, India will stand before its technological altar as an equal to the other major nations.
There is no guarantee that the nuclear deal will not falter now. Each NSG country wields a veto. A small coterie
of self-appointed non-proliferation guardians that include Ireland, Austria and New Zealand have come to Vienna insisting India must accept additional constraints on its nuclear capability. These include an automatic end to all nuclear commerce with India if it carries out a nuclear test — almost insulting when it comes from the Netherlands whose technology spawned the A.Q. Khan network; and, that India be denied enrichment and processing technology even though these are essential to the viability of civilian nuclear power in India.
While the Bush administration has done much of the heavy lifting in pushing the deal, ultimately, this is a vote about the world accepting the reality of India’s rise, given that India has shown itself as a responsible player in that most sensitive of arenas: the nuclear order.