Manmohan’s foreign policy coup almost rivals Indira’s

The arguments will continue till the cows come home, but the American success in swinging the Indo-US nuclear deal, with considerable Indian diplomatic help, in the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) will have two major consequences: It marks the beginning of a new phase of relations with the United States, and it is the one substantial legacy of the nearly five years of the Manmohan Singh government.

It is also significant that the deal approval comes at a particularly fractious time in domestic politics, reflected in the government’s inability to build a greater consensus around a landmark foreign

policy initiative. The Communist parties had their ideological reasons for opposing the deal and finally withdrew support to the coalition government. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s opposition was purely opportunistic in hoping to pull down the government and, after failing in the attempt, burnishing its nationalist credentials.

The Manmohan Singh government decided that only the United States had the key to give India a seat at the world’s high table and US President George W. Bush’s calculation of his country’s interests propelled him to open a unique window of opportunity. The July 2005 deal was the consequence, winding its way through American political and bureaucratic processes and then through the difficult political minefields in India leading to the Communist divorce and the Samajwadi Party’s help in rescuing the government.

Ironically, India’s exclusion from what Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh has described as the "nuclear mainstream" was crafted and orchestrated by the US after the Pokhran-I test. This exclusion was hurting more and more as nuclear plants were working at 40 per cent capacity for lack of uranium and India’s successes in developing its indigenous nuclear programme were hindered by being denied new nuclear technology.

The US’ promise to take India out of its 34-year nuclear isolation, despite New Delhi’s refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and possessing nuclear weapons after Pokharan-II, came at a price. The price is that India should form a strategic partnership with the US — a term debased by overuse — in a regional and international setting. India has convergences with the US on several

issues, including balancing China’s future power trajectory, and a growing Indo-Japanese economic and political relationship.

There are, however, points of divergence in relation to Russia, for instance, on US’ unilateral and militarist impulses and on the role of the United Nations and on how the US views Iran and what is described as the broader Middle East. If India’s nonalignment had a pro-Soviet tinge in the old days, its nonalignment tomorrow, for what it is worth, will have a pro-US tilt. How successfully India plays this balancing act remains to be seen, but the two anti-Iran votes

at the International

Atomic Energy Agency are a warning that

New Delhi should retain a cool head even while making necessary concessions.

The policies the next US administration will pursue remains to be seen, but the worldviews of Washington and New Delhi will inevitably come into conflict on occasion. The US has world interests while India is an emerging power. The American impulse is to prevail, even through force if required, while Indian preferences are more consensual. The essence of India’s nonalignment is to seek autonomy in policymaking, an exercise that is becoming increasingly difficult in the post-Cold War, and now post-Georgia, era.

In domestic political terms, the NSG approval has come as a further setback to the BJP. One can understand the Communist parties’ perspective of opposing India being drawn into an American orbit, but what is one to make of the party that initiated the process of Indo-US rapprochement — remember the marathon Strobe Talbott-Jaswant Singh talks in various world capitals — mounting a staunch opposition to the nuclear deal?

The sense of insecurity the BJP and its leader L.K. Advani are exhibiting is reflective of their frustration from unexpectedly losing the last general elections and then failing to unseat the Manmohan Singh government. Merely declaring that the deal is tantamount to selling the country down the river or walking into a trap will convince few. Nor is the party’s decision to wear the badge of nationalism on its sleeve a productive exercise.

It must surely disconcert Mr Advani that the man he flamboyantly described as the "weakest Prime Minister" the country has had has succeeded in carrying out a foreign policy coup that has been compared with Indira Gandhi’s success in the Bangladesh War, in a conjunction of high-wire diplomacy and force that has few parallels in history. To manage a motley collection of parties that form the coalition and coaxing the Left parties to play along until the time of break arrived required a high degree of planning. And there was the Samajwadi Party willing to lend support at a crucial moment.

The government cannot rest on its laurels because a new, more intensive phase of diplomacy must now begin. India owes a debt to the US in pushing the deal through the NSG in terms of giving it an

adequate share of commercial opportunities in the nuclear trade it has opened up. France and Russia are ahead in the queue in seeking orders for nuclear reactors. Partly, it is up to Washington to speed up its own legislative and bureaucratic processes to claim its share of the Indian cake.

Above all, the Manmohan Singh government has to prove the critics of the deal wrong by managing the contradictions that will surely arise in balancing the interests of the US with India’s core beliefs and multilateral bent of mind. For instance, India cannot be a party to demonising Russia and opposing policies a newly resurgent Russian leadership is following. Nor can India be a party to containment of Russia through Nato and otherwise. Russia played a helpful role in getting India approval for the deal. On the other hand, China has much explaining to do on why it chose to act as it did.

S. Nihal Singh

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