10 years on: The Indo-US nuclear deal that almost didn’t happen

  • Yashwant Raj, Hindustan Times, Washington
  • Updated: Jul 19, 2015 08:12 IST
US President George W. Bush with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh after their talks in New Delhi, March 2, 2006. (HT Photo)

Ten years ago, this week, it nearly didn’t happen.

Under pressure from some members of his delegation, then-prime minister Manmohan Singh asked Natwar Singh, his foreign minister, to tell the Americans there will be no deal.

Secretary of state Condoleezza Rice was not about to give up though. She asked for a meeting with Singh. But the prime minister was reluctant, he didn’t want to say no to her.

It was the night of July 17, 2005 and Singh and President George W Bush were scheduled to announce a deal next morning, from the Rose Garden at the White House.

At 12.05 am, Singh is supposed to have said, “If the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commissioner and the national security adviser are not going along with the figure, let’s call it off.”

The chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission was Anil Kakodkar, a man who had spooked both Americans and Indians. And the NSA was M K Narayanan.

The differences were over the number of reactors India would open up to international inspection and safeguards — New Delhi considered the American position untenable.

Singh’s remarks, never made pubic before, were reported by Narayanan at a day-long celebration this week here in DC of 10 years of the announcement of the India-US nuclear deal.

Former officials of the then dispensations in New Delhi and Washington DC came together to celebrate the deal, exchange notes and, as could be expected, differ on the details.

Rice, who joined the celebrations with a video message, finally got a meeting with Singh, but just minutes before the Rose Garden appearance. And then, they were all good to go.

The deal was announced on July 18, 2005.

How did it start?

Though bits and pieces of the making of the deal have been reported in memoirs and some academic tracts, a definitive account has yet to be documented.

The beginnings of the deal, for instance, remain obscure.

Philip Zelikow, who was then Rice’s consul at the state department, a deputy without portfolio entrusted with whatever his boss wanted him to do, has his own story.

Shortly after returning to DC from a two-week tour of Iraq in February 2005, he remembered being handed a “Pakistan problem” with, as it used to happen then, an “India wrinkle”.

The US had decided to deliver Pakistan the F-16s it had already paid for. But this would be “vexing” to India. “So what was the side thing we could do with India to mitigate the decision?”

In discussions with Bob Zellick, Rice’s deputy secretary, it emerged that nothing could really improve relations with India unless the nuclear issue was resolved.

The US had slapped sanctions against India after the 1998 Pokhran II tests, which compounded with the sanctions after Pokhran I, had turned into a structural block.

“We came up the idea that we just needed to cut this Gordian Knot and take the nuclear issue head on,” said Zelikow, adding “and dismantle the structural obstacle.”

On a visit to India in March 2005, Rice “alluded” to it in various meetings, but never presented it formally as an idea, as the US was not sure then if it really wanted to go there.

But the US wanted to do more with India and see it “become a great power … a democratic powerhouse which could influence the longterm future of the Eurasian landmass.”

On their way back, Rice and Zelikow put together a memo, which they then shared with a few more they could trust — and it was presented to the president.

“The president was completely sold on it.”

I remember it differently

Shyam Sharan, then foreign secretary of India and lead negotiator on the nuclear deal, recalled it a little differently, with the needle moved substantially by him and India.

In his telling, the origin of the deal moves back to an earlier date than Zelikow’s — only by a cou ple of weeks or months and not much further. But it does have a different start date.

Bush had just been re-elected and he has named Rice as his next secretary of state, to succeed Colin Powell, and Sharna met her when she was still transitioning, late-2004 or early-2005.

Prime Minister Singh was expected to visit the US in July 2005, and Rice wanted to know from Sharan if the two countries could announce a more meaningful strategic partnership.

“What would be important from our perspective, she asked me,” Sharan said recalling the meeting. He told her of a recently concluded strategic partnership with the European Union.

The joint statement had mentioned nuclear cooperation — based on India’s argument that it had been a responsible nuclear state, and that it planned to use it to whet its growing energy needs.

“That was the fist time after 1974 that in any document with a major partner we had actually something about cooperation on nuclear issues,” the former diplomat said.

So, he told Rice, this is one area that is very important to India. But, he added, he wasn’t sure if the United States was prepared to go “some distance with us” on this.

“This is very interesting that you should be talking about nuclear energy being an answer to some the problems that you are talking about,” Rice responded, according to Sharan.

Bush had apparently arrived at the same conclusion.

“President Bush has decided that the United State of America needs a renaissance of nuclear energy,” she said apparently. The US had not built a singular nuclear plant in the last 20 years.

And these two narratives came together in the March visit.

Talk to the wind

Talks leading up the 2005 announcement, and the conclusion in 2008, were not easy and negotiators recall fondly, and with frustration, the highs and the lows of it.

Driving to a hotel from a particularly prickly meeting with Indians, US negotiators were venting about the lack of progress, even understanding of the high-pressure game.

“We were complaining bitterly about what we thought was Indians’ lack of understanding of the nuclear negotiations under way,” recalls Anish Goel, part of the US team.

They clearly thought Indians were way out of their depth on this one. And, once they were by themselves, they just vented as bitterly as they could, among themselves.

But the lead negotiator, a senior US official who will remain unidentified, stopped them with an observation that if Indians didn’t understand it wasn’t their fault entirely.

“We kept them out of the game for 35 years — and that’s a long time,” the officials told the rest of the group, “no wonder they don’t have a complete understanding of it.”

The Indian American bureaucrat was deeply involved with the nuclear deal first at the state department and then at the White House — serving Bush and Barack Obama.

Goel remembers the tough discussions — “Kakodkar was this huge mystery to us; someone we had no access to and therefore knew very little about what he was thinking”.

Even Indians were a little wary of him.

Narayanan described him as “perhaps the most hostile element in the entire negotiating strategy who was suspicious of the ministry external affairs as (well) of the Americans.”


Nicholas Burns, who led the negotiations for the US, believes the nuclear deal is not finished yet. The contentious liability law passed by India in 2008 stands in the way, he said at the Carnegie event.

Sharan disagreed. It’s done and over with.

Read: 10 years on: Civil nuclear deal has served India, US interests

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