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Delhi Tries Bush Tack on Nuke Deal

Delhi Tries Bush Tack on Nuke Deal

By J. Sri Raman
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Will Manmohan Singh be able to do a George Bush to save the nuclear deal between the two "strategic partners?" Will India witness in coming days the build-up of a bipartisan consensus on the deal, as the US did some months ago?

That is much more than a billion-dollar question, considering what the deal to reopen US-India nuclear commerce is likely to cost the common Indian and profit corporate giants in both countries. Just a couple of weeks ago, the deal was nearly given up for dead in the Indian media and political circles. Revived now is hope for its finalization - through a Bush-like achievement of bipartisan backing.

It may not be sufficiently recognized, but India's pro-deal camp and interests have played a significant role in helping Washington achieve such backing. A look back at newspapers through much of last year will show that such backing for the deal was considered beyond the realm of possibilities. If the Hyde Act, representing a bipartisan "yes" to the deal, were still enacted in December 2006, the credit did not go only to the president's men and women. Some of it must also go to multimillion-dollar lobbying by the Manmohan Singh government, India's corporate sector and Indian-American groups in the US.

It would seem to be payback time now. The pre-deal partnership continues, with the Bush administration and its US backers swinging in to do their bit to help a besieged Singh government in this regard. The aim is a bipartisan consensus in India, to be achieved by wooing and winning over the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The far-right BJP, whose government under former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had taken the first Indian initiative for a "strategic partnership" with the US, has declared its opposition to the deal "in its present form."

To some, the idea of Washington trying to sell the "bipartisan" formula in India may seem a bit far-fetched. An official statement should answer them.

Writing in the November-December issue of the prestigious Foreign Affairs, US Under-Secretary for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns sets out the idea: "That this new US-India partnership is supported by a bipartisan consensus in both countries considerably strengthens the prospects for its success. In India, both the ruling Indian National Congress and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party have worked for over a decade to elevate India's ties with the United States."

"In the United States," Burns recalls, "shortly after the beginning of India 's economic liberalization, President Clinton signaled Washington's desire to forge a new era of commerce and investment between the two countries. And after India 's May 1998 nuclear tests, then-Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott engaged India's then-foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, in 14 rounds of talks over two and a half years. Talbott's negotiations with Singh were Washington's first truly sustained strategic engagement with the Indian leadership."

Burns records the subsequent breakthrough in rapturous terms. "When he entered office in 2001, President Bush recognized early on the power and importance of India 's large and vibrant democracy in global politics" and "doubled the United States' strategic bet on India." Washington's campaign for a "bipartisan consensus" on the deal in India carries the process forward.

The public part of New Delhi's campaign was launched with India's Minister of State for Home Shriprakash Jaiswal calling on the BJP to drop what he, obviously and like many others, saw as its pretense of opposition to the deal. He told the media on October 24: "We understand that Left has strong reasons to oppose the deal. But we are not able to figure out what problems the BJP has on the deal."

In a further bid to figure out the problems, US Ambassador to India David C. Mulford called at the residence of BJP luminary and former Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani in New Delhi a couple of days later. Mulford followed this up with a meeting with BJP President Rajnath Singh. The details of both the talks, admittedly on the deal, were not publicized, though the BJP claimed that the party's stand had been reiterated.

The Mulford initiative was followed by a more-unexpected Henry Kissinger mission. The larger-than-life former US secretary of state, who also met the two top BJP leaders, denied that he had come to India as a lobbyist for the deal. Few, however, took the denial seriously, especially after his speech at a seminar in India's capital. He seized the public occasion to warn New Delhi against delaying the deal, as it opponents in the US will be "better organized" two years later, or in the period after the presidential poll. It did not appear as if the ace diplomat would place his bet on a Bush-backed candidate in that election.

US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson was also here, but he only met government and corporate leaders to push the deal gently while discussing economic relations of a wide range. The deal, however, was the sole driving force behind the nonofficial diplomacy of an eight-member delegation representing India-American interests. Both Paulson and the delegation of the US-India Political Action Committee (Usinpac) contacted the Left, too - with the former meeting Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, head of the Left-ruled government of the State of West Bengal, and the latter visiting the headquarters of the Communist Party of India. But that, clearly, was only an attempt to appear nonpartisan even while pursuing and pushing the "bipartisan" process.

The Usinpac team, in fact, acted as a go-between. According to Sanjay Puri, head of the delegation, when they met Manmohan Singh, " they were not only told that the deal was still alive but the prime minister even asked them to carry a message to the BJP leaders." Puri said Singh "asked us to tell them (the BJP), 'Let's have an open debate on the subject'." This was another way of asking a reluctant BJP to agree to a session of parliament on the deal in order to give it democratic legitimacy.

A particularly important part of the campaign consisted of a meeting of Mulford with Brajesh Mishra, who made a mark as national security adviser to the Vajpayee government. Mishra, who made his presence felt in Washington too by calling for a US-India-Israel axis against "terrorism" while on an official visit, was receptive and prepared to revise his earlier stand against the deal.

Mishra, known for his close proximity to BJP icon Vajpayee, appeared on TV to argue that he had no problem with the deal if he could be convinced that it did not "cap" India's nuclear program. What Mishra wanted, more than anything else, was a demonstration of "enthusiasm" by the Singh government over India's strategic nuclear program.

The imported campaign had a lot of local support. The pro-deal camp, including powerful sections of the media, have been asking the same question as Jaiswal. They have been wondering what objection the BJP could possibly have to the deal, and whether it was not just pursuing a "sour grapes" policy.

The BJP, for its part, has voiced tacit agreement with such criticism by stating that it was not against "strategic partnership" with the US. The party has repeatedly reiterated that it only wants "renegotiation" of the deal to safeguard India's "sovereignty" in relation to its nuclear weapons program that may involve further testing.

On the contrary, the Left, on whose outside support Singh's minority coalition government has relied so far, opposes the deal mainly as part of the "strategic partnership." The Left has taken particularly trenchant objection to the attempt by Washington to influence and even dictate India's foreign policy through the deal. The Bush administration has responded by becoming the Singh government's partner also in domestic political moves to push the deal through.

The domestic battle now shifts to Parliament, where the deal is to be discussed from November 15 to December 7. Under India's Constitution and conventions, an international treaty needs no parliamentary ratification. The Left wants the government to take note of the majority view and mood in the House before deciding on the deal's future. The BJP had earlier pressed for a parliamentary vote on the issue. Indications, however, are that the party may not stick to this stand if it is able to cut its own deal with the government.

Clearly in the cards are dramatic moves on the deal from both strategic partners. Since US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has ruled out a renegotiation of the pact, will the Bush administration come out with a verbal assurance to address the BJP's concerns? Will the Singh government oblige Mishra with an appropriate and adequate demonstration of "enthusiasm" for the nuclear weapons program ("without referring to any numbers," as the former national security adviser allows, in a display of his own concern for nuclear nontransparency)?

The answers will depend on the advance made towards a "bipartisan consensus" on the deal in India.


A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. Sri Raman is the author of "Flashpoint" (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.

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