India's house of cards

2008-08-14 00:00

Three weeks ago, the Indian government did everything but raise the dead to win a crucial vote on its nuclear deal with the United States.

Jailed members of parliament were given temporary release in order to vote, MPs in intensive care were wheeled into the chamber, and there was talk of multi-million dollar bribes being offered for MPs to change their votes.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh won, in the end, but the nuclear house of cards he has built over the past few years is still tottering. The nuclear deal got past the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) a week ago, but it faces a stormier passage when it goes before the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) this month. Indeed, NSG members that hate the deal but don’t want to anger New Delhi can kill it just by stalling for a while.

President George W. Bush must send the completed deal, approved by the IAEA and the NSG, to the United States Congress before early September, or it is effectively dead. Congress must have the bill for 30 days before it can vote on it. It is scheduled to adjourn in late September — and if the favoured candidate in the presidential election, Barack Obama, wins the November vote, the deal will not be resurrected after he takes office.

How do we know that? Because Obama really doesn’t like nuclear weapons. Late last year, he rashly promised that he would never use nuclear weapons against civilians. Then, when he was criticised for that “gaffe” — whoever heard of a president who wasn’t willing to kill civilians? — he went flat out and said that the U.S. should seek “a world in which there are no nuclear weapons”. Not even American ones.

Obama has not specifically addressed the U.S.-Indian nuclear deal, but he has said that he will strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which is certainly not compatible with accepting the deal that Bush cut with Manmohan Singh. That deal is all about circumventing the NPT so that India (which has not signed the treaty) gets to keep its nuclear weapons, and still gets permission to buy nuclear materials and technology on the international market.

A moment’s digression here, so that Indian readers don’t go completely ballistic. The NPT is grossly unfair. There is no good argument for why five great powers — the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France — should be seen as legitimate possessors of nuclear weapons while nobody else is entitled to them. Is India less important or less trustworthy than those countries?

The only reason India has been treated as a nuclear rogue state is that it carried out its first nuclear test in 1974, six years after the NPT was signed. And in fairness to Pakistani and Israeli readers, whose countries also possess nuclear weapons unauthorised by the NPT, neither is there any good argument for saying that great powers should have nuclear weapons and lesser powers should not. In fact, you could easily argue that case the other way around.

If you get tangled up in the question of what is fair, there will be no end to the discussion. The NPT is a crudely pragmatic device that was meant to head off a world of 20 or 30 nuclear-armed countries, and it has been moderately successful. Nobody is going to take India’s nuclear weapons away (or Pakistan’s, or Israel’s), but there is still value in trying to prevent the further spread of such dreadful capabilities.

In that context, it does not help to give India a free pass, which is what is now being attempted by Washington. Yes, India has ignored the NPT and developed nuclear weapons, but the Bush administration wants to exempt it from the NPT sanctions that stop everybody else from selling it nuclear materials and technology because … well, because the U.S. would like to have India as an ally.

The U.S.-Indian deal is not really about nuclear weapons. It is about military co-operation on a much broader front; in fact, it is an alliance under another name. The target of the proposed alliance is China, which the Bush administration and its Asian allies, notably in Japan, see as an emergent strategic threat. If they can sign the

Indians up too, then China has a real two-front problem and that may make it behave more cautiously. Or so the conventional strategic thinking goes.

The nuclear deal between the U.S. and India that has used up so much political time and energy over the past three years is the U.S. down-payment on the Indian alliance. The U.S. gets a big, nuclear-armed India as an ally on China’s southern and western frontiers. India gets China as a potential enemy, but it also gets access to American hi-tech weapons and it is washed clean of its sins on the nuclear proliferation front.

But the NSG is unlikely to accept the deal without imposing some conditions (like no more nuclear tests) that the Indian parliament will not accept, and the U.S. Congress may adjourn next month without voting on the legislation.

Bush is gone in January and Singh’s government, which must call an election next year, is probably gone by next July.

All that effort, all those lies, all those favours called in — and still it’s probably not going to happen. India will probably not become the U.S.’s loyal ally in Asia. Good.

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