Weekly Insights and Analysis

In India: A Nuclear Meltdown? Not yet.

September 5, 2007

By Balasubramanian Iyer

On July 27, 2007, the White House announced the conclusion of a technical agreement between the United States and India, which would for the first time allow civil nuclear cooperation between the two countries. The landmark 123 Agreement sets a framework for the two countries to fully cooperate on civil nuclear initiatives such as research and development, and trade in nuclear technologies.  Before nuclear cooperation can begin, India needs to finalize separate agreements with the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the nuclear watch-dog, and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) ” a cartel of nations that export nuclear material. Then, U.S. lawmakers need to approve the agreement.

While India’s cabinet has signed off on the technical agreement, lawmakers from the communist parties ” known as the Left Front (who support the Manmohan Singh Government) and BJP, the Hindu nationalist party (currently in opposition), have opposed the deal, although on different grounds. To the left parties, the issue is the increasing proximity to the U.S. that such cooperation will engender, while to the BJP the problem is the terms of the agreement. Both believe the agreement threatens national sovereignty. The prospect of the left parties (a major ally of the ruling coalition) ending support for Manmohan Singh’s government, reducing it to a minority government, cannot be entirely excluded. According to analysts, this would not automatically cause the government to fall, as the Left is not expected to vote with its rival Hindu nationalist opposition against the government in a no confidence motion.

There is equal criticism of the deal from across the Atlantic and exasperation at the U.S. readiness to accept India’s nuclear weapons program. India is not a signatory of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treat (NPT), which limits the number of nuclear weapon powers to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. The IAEA will now have to craft a special safeguards arrangement for India, which will have to be approved by its 35-member Board of Governors, which also includes India. The IAEA Agreement is an enabling one in that it will come into operation only when all other processes are completed and civilian nuclear commerce begins. Of the IAEA board, of which some members are European, Russia, France and the UK have already backed the Indo-US agreement, positioning themselves to tap into the potentially lucrative Indian nuclear market. The position which China will take both in the NSG and IAEA remains open.  Such cooperation at the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group seems less ready, where a stronger, 31-European-member contingent exists. While the agreement may not be derailed, there is the potential to create complications, such as demanding safeguards over and beyond the 123 nuclear pact. According to former Ambassador T.P. Sreenivasan, “The negotiations on an India-specific safeguards agreement with the IAEA Governing Board and talks with members of the NSG to seek an exception for India are likely to be long and hazardous.”

Indian public opinion is still wavering although it is leaning towards the government’s stance and hardening at the Communist parties’ intransigence. One thing is clear: the deal has engaged Indians in a foreign policy issue as never before. Although by no means representative, a survey of 6,500 voters by The Week magazine and C-Voter polling firm reported that 46% of Indians backed the deal, 28% were against it, and 26% did not state an opinion. Similarly, an online poll by The Times of India found more support for the Government, with 96% of respondents saying the nuclear deal was in India’s interests and urging Mr. Singh to call the communists’ bluff.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh quoted English poet Shelley and said, “If this be winter, can spring be far behind?” A day later, the communist party General Secretary Prakash Karat hinted at a long nuclear winter. Both sides are trying to buy time, looking for a face-saving way out of the crisis as neither is considered keen to see the government fall or face polls at the moment. The announcement of a UPA (Government)-Left committee to examine the implications of the U.S.-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act (the legal framework for the nuclear pact) on India’s independent decision making, and of the 123 Agreement, could be the device all sides need. But whether it will stymie onward discussions to achieve the end-point remains unclear.

Balasubramanian Iyer is The Asia Foundation’s Director for Field Operations in South Asia.

Related locations: India


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