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When the echo of silence is telling

india Updated: Feb 18, 2007 04:48 IST
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Have you noticed the sound of silence that has suddenly shrouded the Indo-US nuclear deal? After becoming one of the most debated and written about subjects of 2006, its literally gone quiet. And the amazing thing is this has happened after the passage of the Hyde Act signaled the deal’s impending, even imminent, success.

You need to pause — even backtrack a little — to appreciate how astounding this is. The Hyde Act is perhaps the most significant foreign policy development of the last decade. Through it America changed three decades of non-proliferation legislation, in the teeth of stiff opposition from its own internal non-proliferation lobby, solely for the benefit of a country that has never been an ally but often a staunch critic. Equally importantly, the Act opens the door for other NSG countries — Britain, France and Russia, to name three — to conduct civil nuclear trade with India. Without the Hyde Act they would not be able, or willing, to do so.

Quite frankly, India owes America, and George W. Bush in particular, a huge thank you. I have no doubt no other President would have done this. Yet do we appear grateful? Are we rushing to clinch the deal? Far from it. At the very moment of triumph we’ve become paralyzed by doubt. We’ve begun to consider a favour from America akin to a kiss of death. Instead of embracing a new friend, we’re dragging our feet, wondering if we’ve done the right thing and backing off.

Suddenly domestic compulsions have started to colour foreign policy goals. The killing of Saddam Hussain has cast America in a new light. The threat of war in Iran has added a tense edge. And events in the Middle East have underlined this rethinking. So as the election season approaches, friendship with Washington has become a source of concern. Will UP muslims hold it against Congress? Will the Left tolerate an American embrace? And can the UPA alliance accept the inevitable pro-US shift a successfully completed nuclear deal would usher in?

Not sure of the answer — and lacking the conviction to push its own agenda — the UPA Government has opted to stand still. The pause button has been pressed and held down. Consequently, the relationship with Washington, which was progressing satisfactorily, is for now frozen.

Not surprisingly, the Americans are perplexed, baffled, even confused. As they see things, they did everything to deliver a deal that meets Indian concerns. George Bush even announced that the bits of the Hyde Act India can’t stomach are non-binding. But that wasn’t all. Congress delivered — both in the House and the Senate — resounding majorities in favour of the Act. Despite their disinclination to give the crippled Bush administration a victory, they did so for India’s sake.

So how will the American government and Congress view India’s response? If they feel disappointed, may be let down, perhaps even upset, that has to be understandable. I doubt if they were looking for gratitude — although they definitely deserve it — but they must have expected a warm welcome. What they instead got is a churlish response.

But I shall go further. It won’t be long before Washington feels kicked in the teeth. They laid out a banquet but we preferred dal-roti. Then why, in the first place, did we seek the deal in July 2005? And why have we tried to persuade the NSG to back it?

Countries who do business with us — particularly those who change their laws to boost the relationship — expect us to know our mind, to be firm of purpose and constant in our choices. Today its such friends we are in danger of disappointing. If they conclude they’ve over estimated us, would they be wrong?

Meanwhile — and this is the second element of the story — America is losing interest in India. With Bush’s ratings sinking faster than the Titanic and opinion in Washington convinced that ‘war on Iran’ is inevitable, if not also imminent, interest in the Indo-US nuclear deal is fading. It’s simply not as important. Furthermore, Congress senses the end of the Republican era and is readying itself for a Democrat revival. Why, at this point, would it want to help Bush? Even if it’s prepared to do so for Delhi’s sake, will that be the case two or three months on?

The window of opportunity for the Indo-US nuclear deal is closing.

If we’re lucky we have a couple of months left. But does the Government realise that?

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