Indo-US nuclear entente: The conflicts within

After endless rounds of discussions between officials Washington has finally accepted the nuclear separation plan proposed by New Delhi. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US President George W Bush, who began the process together last year, brought it to a fruition when the two signed the pact in New Delhi, which is the highlight of Bush’s visit to India. “We have concluded an historic agreement today on nuclear power,” Bush told a joint news conference with Manmohan.

As per the deal Washington has accepted India’s contention that the Fast Breeder Reactors (FBRs) will be kept out of the civilian list, though US under secretary of state for political affairs Nicholas Burns later said ”future civilian breeder reactors” will be under safeguards. At the same time it will be entirely India’s sovereign right to decide whether to keep new indigenously built plants in the civilian or military list. Nuclear reactors that generate about 65 % of India’s atomic power will be open to international scrutiny. Of India’s 22 nuclear reactors, 14 will have safeguards, while the rest will be devoted to the military programme.

In exchange of the “safeguards in perpetuity” clause that doesn’t allow India to shift any civilian facility back into the military list as the five nuclear weapons powers are allowed, India has managed an “in built” assurance of uninterrupted fuel supply for plants on the civilian list. It has been decided that the US would not impede Indian efforts to procure nuclear fuel from other countries. This addresses concerns about India’s experience with Tarapur reactors when supplies were stopped due to US sanctions.

The Indian Express comments: “The most successful visit to New Delhi by an American President in the last 60 years marks the debut of India as a great power on the world stage. Bush has also addressed one of India’s long-standing strategic objectives-parity with China and political differentiation from Pakistan (Washington has made clear that there will be no nuclear deal with Islamabad). By offering India the same access that China has for international nuclear markets and denying it to Pakistan, Bush has in one stroke torn up the long-standing geopolitical premises about this region. And Bush’s emphasis on democracy separates India from both China and Pakistan. Bush’s visit to India will long be remembered as a bow to India’s rise, at once peaceful and democratic.”

The conflicts within

However, both Bush and Manmohan have to contend with domestic opprobrium to the pact. Bush needs the approval of the US Congress, a task which he has admitted to be "difficult.” Non-proliferation advocates in the US have said that Bush has given away too much in the nuclear agreement and have accused him of destroying the established nuclear order only for India. “It’s a sweetheart deal for India … The administration told Congress the agreement would be about the growth of India’s electricity and not the growth of Indian bomb making potential and that standard clearly has not been met,” Michael Krepon of the Henry L Stimson Center, has been quoted while referring to the FBR’s being kept out. Democratic Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts has said the accord “undermines the security not only of the United States, but of the rest of the world.”

Bush knows that he has his task cut out. At the press conference after meeting Manmohan, he said: "The first thing I will say to our Congress is that our relationship is changing for the better…You know, sometimes it’s hard to get rid of history…What this agreement says is things change, times change, that leadership can make a difference, and sending the world a different message (from) what used to exist in people’s minds."

Analysts have, however, also been talking the business potential of such an agreement that may result in the legislation being pushed through. Many expect the law to be passed before May when the 45-nation Nuclear Supplier’s Group (NSG) meet takes up the exemptions granted to India and before the Congressional elections in the US due in 80 legislative days. India and US will then sign a bilateral civilian nuclear cooperation agreement following which fuel supply to Tarapur can begin. This would end decades of nuclear isolation for India, which was placed under international sanctions after conducting nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998.

Indian Muslims and Bush

Manmohan has to deal with the querulous left allies, without whose support his government cannot survive. While the left protests were expected, it is the massive rallies against the Bush visit in which Muslims participated that caught New Delhi unawares. It is perhaps the first instance of pan-Islamic sentiments so strongly expressed by the Muslims in India who number close to 150 million in the country, the largest after Indonesia. Muslims came out in such large numbers to protest US policies in Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, that Manmohan has invited Muslim leaders to inform them that the nuclear deal should not be seen as India’s ratification of other decisions by Washington, including the invasion of Iraq.

It is often said that foreign policy does not impinge on the way Muslims in India vote, as demonstrated by the defeat of former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee who initiated the peace process with Pakistan. The dictum could be challenged.

Assembly elections are due in five states this year and if the Congress, the party to which Manmohan belongs, does not do well, there will be pressure to dilute the strong pro-US approach. Though the high of the nuclear deal sidelined the massive protests by Muslims and left parties that marked the Bush visit, New Delhi knows that such discontent cannot be ignored. Other regional parties such as the Samajwadi Party (SP) that relies on Muslim support and has a powerful presence in the largest state Uttar Pradesh joined the fray. Incidentally, West Bengal, Kerala and Assam where elections are due comprise sizeable Muslim populations.

India is a nation with a majority population of Hindus who are sub-divided into a myriad of castes and sub-castes. Political parties in India are thus known to cultivate Muslims, as they vote en masse. Such a strategy has been followed for long by national parties such as the Congress (viz, the Shah Bano case, wherein the Congress in power overturned a ruling by the Supreme Court to provide maintenance due to divorce, to keep Muslim clerics happy) and continues to the present. Recently, the Congress mooted the proposal of reservations for Muslims in educational institutions, a move that was shot down by the court.

Muslim religious leaders claim to understand the sentiments of Indian Muslims and the correct interpretation of Islamic tenets. Political parties are averse to take them on as somehow a view has gained ground that siding with the religious heads conveys an image of being pro-Muslim.

Emboldened, Muslim clerics are known to issue irrational diktats. They include the instance of the alleged rape of a Muslim woman Imrana by her father-in-law. The clerics declared that Imrana should treat her husband as a son and move in with her alleged rapist. In another recent case, Muslim women were asked not to contest in local elections in the state of Uttar Pradesh and those who went out to vote were ordered to wear veils.

India’s tennis sensation Sania Mirza too has been a victim. While Sania is a national icon due to her tennis victories, fatwas (edicts) that she “covers up” have continued to fly, issued by known and unknown Muslim clerics. They want Sania, as a devout Muslim, to wear long pants and full-sleeved shirts, the way it is with sportswomen of Muslim countries such as Iran or Pakistan.

Ironically, over the last couple of years, Bush has repeatedly praised Indian Muslims for not being part of the Al-Qaeda, despite Muslim youth across the world falling prey to radical Islamists. The reason, as Bush has said in several forums, is the success of India as a democracy that empowers the Muslim population to vote leaders of their choice as well as being recipients of political favors. Such a system does not exist in any of the hotbeds of Islamic terrorism, whether Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and the erstwhile Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

Eulogizing India’s pluralistic polity wherein the country had a Muslim President and a Sikh Prime Minister, Bush said, "India is a good example of how freedom can help different people live together in peace. And this commitment to secular government and religious pluralism makes India a natural partner for the United States. In the past, the Cold War and regional tensions kept us apart, but today, our interests and values are bringing us closer together."

However, India’s stand against Iran has been a sticking factor with the Muslims in India. New Delhi has been trying to broker on behalf of Iran and has been instrumental in buying more time for Tehran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) meet in September despite the anti-Iran vote. The November meet of the IAEA postponed action due to active behind the scene lobbying by New Delhi officials. Matters were relatively quiet on this front, until in January this year when Tehran removed UN seals from three nuclear facilities, ending a two-year suspension of uranium enrichment-related activities.

Upset over Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani’s reference to the expansive Indo-US nuclear deal as a case of US ”dual standards,” New Delhi voted with western powers at the February 2 IAEA meet. However, India’s anti-Iran vote is being seen as a strong anti-Muslim stance, made apparent by the protests. New Delhi cannot ignore the domestic political ramifications of its foreign policy.

The left and Bush

The left prides itself for its anti-US stand that constantly irritates the government and has also managed to block several economic reform measures, describing them as anti-poor, which hits at the proponents of free competition. The Manmohan government, which wants to push the liberalization process, has been grappling the stranglehold, though it showed some muscle in pushing through the airport privatization process and changes in retail norms.

The left antipathy towards the US is rooted in its anti-imperialist, anti-colonial and socialist ideologies, though their unstinted support to China is paradoxical, given the country’s espousal of capitalism. The left parties criticize Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal while at the same time oppose New Delhi’s stand against Iran. The left parties follow an impression that an anti-US stand goes down well with the masses of electorate (particularly in West Bengal that has voted them to Parliament) who have not benefited due to the economic reforms and progress.

A direct fallout of left posturing is that Bush did not get to address a joint session of the Indian Parliament, despite several reports of Manmohan making a personal appeal to the left parties to allow the same. Late last year the left parties organized massive rallies against an Indo-US air exercise in the state of West Bengal (the left bastion), in which F-16 fighter jets took part in mock sorties for the first time in India.

A senior left party leader A B Bardhan described Bush as “the ugly face of the most aggressive imperialism in the world.” In more saber-rattling West Bengal chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya said Bush is the leader of “the most organized pack of killers.” Noted left leader Jyoti Basu has labeled Bush as the “biggest terrorist of the world.” The left has also criticized the Manmohan government for not supporting Tehran’s cause, though New Delhi has made it clear that it will not stand for another (apart from Pakistan) nuclear power in its neighborhood.

Perhaps to unsettle the government, the Left has also talked about forming a third front (apart from the Congress and opposition Bharatiya Janata Party) by roping in another regional party, the Telugu Desam (TDP) of Andhra Pradesh, where again Muslims hold the key to getting elected. The left parties have said that they are seriously re-thinking their support to the Manmohan government (though there is no immediate threat as the left loathes the BJP more than the Congress) and also want foreign policy decisions so far the preserve of the executive to be legislated in Parliament

In a surprise turn the BJP, which is in a rethink mode and has been looking to win back its Hindu supporters, has welcomed India’s stand against Tehran. The BJP has, however, criticized the nuclear deal as surrender of India’s autonomy.

Shadow of Beijing

Experts also say that the dark horse could yet be China, which is not comfortable with the growing synergies between India and USA and could create problems for India at the NSG. Beijing and Islamabad (snubbed by Bush who made it clear that there will be no nuclear deal with Pakistan, given the “context and history of the country”) known to keep close military ties will also not be happy with the US defense department statement during the Bush visit that Washington has also agreed to sell India more sophisticated fighter aircrafts and other high-tech arms. After a studied silence, following the Indo-US nuclear pact last year, Beijing had made it clear that it was not very happy with it.

Displaying the misgivings once more, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, Qin Gang, has been quoted by the Reuters news agency, following the New Delhi agreement, as saying that the current international safeguards on nuclear weapons were the hard-won product of many countries’ efforts and should not be weakened by exceptions. “China hopes that concerned countries developing cooperation in peaceful nuclear uses will pay attention to these efforts. The cooperation should conform with the rules of international non-proliferation mechanisms (India is a non-signatory to the nuclear proliferation treaty, the NPT),” he said.

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