The turnaround could not have come about in a more dramatic way. From all appearances the India-US agreement for civilian nuclear cooperation was headed for a fiasco. This time around a last ditch rescue effort seemed unlikely to materialize. Already obituaries were being composed for the nuclear deal and Indian critics of the accords were feeling increasing confidence the matter had been laid to rest. Mentally they were starting to envision for India a political life and discourse focused on substantial issues and no longer subject to hijacking by the recurrent specter of the nuclear deal. All at once the news from Vienna put paid to these sanguine prospects.
In the recently concluded chapter of the tortuous saga of the India-US nuclear agreement, the pivotal issue has been gaining an exemption for India from the Nuclear Supplies Group (NSG), the cartel of forty-five member nations which controls and regulates international trade in nuclear materials and technology. NSG regulations prohibit transactions with countries like India that are not party to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. Obstacles inherent in overcoming the NSG prohibition were compounded by the insistence of Indian negotiators and spokespersons on receiving a condition-free waiver. For instance India has agreed to place its civilian or nuclear energy plants under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards but has refused to allow monitoring of its nuclear weapons facilities. India‘s determination to keep its non-civilian reactors inviolate is at odds with NSG rules which require full-scope or comprehensive safeguards on all nuclear reactors operated by participating or member countries. The first round of NSG deliberations (August 21-22) ended without consensus being reached. A number of countries expressed concerns related to the nonproliferation regime being undermined by the export of nuclear material and technology to a state with a declared nuclear weapons program. Talks ran into choppy waters with dissenting countries proposing as many as fifty amendments to the draft waiver circulated by the US and India’s hopes for a speedy waiver were dashed to the ground. With India and the US returning to the drawing table, an effort was made to accommodate NSG concerns in the refurbished draft waiver that was to be presented at the NSG extraordinary plenary to be convened on September 4-5.
On the eve of the second round of NSG deliberations, the pitch was queered by the release of a letter written in January 2008 by the State Department in response to questions raised by Congresspersons on the precise nature of the commitments made to India. The existence of this letter had been reported on as far back as May but the contents were not divulged at the time. Despite being an unclassified document, the letter remained under wraps for months at the request of the State Department because it was feared that the contents were such as to torpedo the (at the time) stalled nuclear deal if they were made public. The release of the letter on September 2happened at the behest of Senator Berman, Chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee. The letter raised a storm in India because its contents contradicted key assurances that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had made in Parliament on the nature of the agreement between India and the US. The blunt statements in the letter were in sharp contrast to the ambiguous formulations of the document, the 123 agreement, in which the understanding between India and US was set forth. The 123 agreement carefully avoids discussing the penalties that would be imposed if India were to conduct a nuclear test. It was apparent however from the State Department’s letter that the US would discontinue its cooperation if India were to conduct a nuclear test. Another crucial divergence between the letter and the 123 agreement had to do with an issue of crucial importance to India, namely the securing of an uninterrupted supply of fuel. The text of the agreement appears to insulate India from fuel supply disruptions under all possible circumstances. In contrast the letter specifies that the guarantee of uninterrupted fuel supply applies only to disruptions which occur through no fault of India.
Even as the NSG convened in Vienna, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was being called on to submit his resignation. With anger mounting in India over revelations of US perfidy, the deal appeared to have received a devastating blow. The response from some NSG member countries did not augur well for the Indian cause when the revised draft was presented at the plenary. "I can’t see how they expect us to accept this" was the comment of a delegate from a country which had earlier objected to giving India the waiver. The first day of deliberations ended without consensus being reached. By the end of the second day, rumors started circulating of a third round of deliberations and the deal seemed to be doomed to death by debate. A final, determined push by the US and India in the final hours of an 18 hour long meeting saved the day for the nuclear deal.
How was the turnaround brought about? One answer lies in External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s statement on India‘s commitment to strengthening the non-proliferation regime and his reiteration of India‘s voluntary, unilateral moratorium on further nuclear testing. As reported by the media the statement made a favorable impression on assembled diplomats and led to the thinning of the ranks of the countries that were opposed to granting the waiver to India. Other reasons were the call made to President Hu Jintao by President Bush and the forcefully worded demarche sent by India to the Chinese embassy. This eleventh hour " diplomacy" on the part of India and the US led to China withdrawing its objections to the waiver. Finally sheer determination and persistence on the part of the American delegation wore down the resistance of the remaining opponents of the waiver–Austria, Ireland and New Zealand—and turned the tide in favor of exempting India from the NSG’s export controls.
In his remarks at the G-8 summit in Hokkaido (July 7-9), Prime Minister Manmohan Singh invoked a future wherein India and the US would stand together shoulder to shoulder. The collaboration between India and the US at the NSG deliberations has placed the closeness desired by the Prime Minister on display before the world. The full weight of the consequences in such areas as India‘s relations with West Asia and with the non-aligned world are yet to unfold. One consequence however has already kicked in. Having delivered India the coveted exemption from NSG export rules, the US has begun to speak in terms of quid pro quo. Secretary of State Condolezza Rice was asked by reporters about the possibility of US companies being placed at a disadvantage if Congress delayed to ratify the India-US civilian nuclear agreement. In her response she expressed her confidence in the Indian government’s appreciation of US efforts on India‘s behalf at the NSG and added "…I think we will have ways to talk to them about not disadvantaging American companies." The implicit menace in the response of the Secretary of State should not take Indian officials by surprise. After all the endless stalling of the India-Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline project has demonstrated that Indian officialdom has been intensively schooled in the arm-twisting tactics of the United States.