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The Indo-U.S. Civilian Nuclear Agreement and the Indian Axis of Evil


For the first time since the break up of the former Soviet Union, a significant challenge is being mounted to American military and economic hegemony.  Even as the U.S. seeks to maintain a stranglehold over proven and conjectured oil and natural gas reserves of West and Central Asia by constructing a chain of military bases and (ideally) installing a series of obedient Presidents and Prime Ministers across the region, its policy makers find themselves having to counter the resistance offered by the established powers of the region.  The recent assertiveness that led Russia to invite and host Hamas representatives of the Palestinian government as well as the growing economic and military strength of China have come to form a threat to U.S. domination in Asia.  The conflation of Eurasian and Asian powers is encapsulated in the increasing clout of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), that emerged in 2001 from the re-baptism of the long dormant Shanghai Five and held its sixth summit at Shanghai on June 15, 2006.  The mainstream media in the U.S. have by and large maintained a silence on the existence of the SCO but presumably U.S. policy makers have not remained equally oblivious.  Along with China and Russia, the SCO counts Kazakhstan, Kyrgyztan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan among its members.  At the 2005 summit, the SCO called for a time-table for a U.S. withdrawal from Central Asia.  At its 2006 summit, the SCO extended a cordial reception and a platform to Mahmud Ahmedinejad, President of Iran and–despite close competition from Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela: currently the leading bugbear of American officialdom.  By refusing to lend its weight to the regional isolation that the U.S. seeks to impose on Iran the SCO has made explicit its differences with the Bush Administration.  India, Pakistan and Iran were invited observers at the SCO summit and the latter countries have been lobbying actively for induction into the organization.  But Indian policy vis-à-vis this important regional forum is characterized by ambivalence.  Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was conspicuous by his absence from a summit that was attended by the heads of government of member and observer states.  In his stead went Murli Deora, Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas.  Indian analysts were quick to remark that India’s low profile at the SCO was a gesture of deference to U.S. interests at a time when the Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear agreement was scheduled to come up for debate in Congressional committees.

The antecedents of the controversial Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear deal go back to the landmark agreement that was signed on July 18, 2005 by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Bush. The terms of this agreement committed President Bush to seeking an adjustment of U.S. laws and international treaties to allow full civil nuclear cooperation with India. This was a path-breaking agreement because U.S. law specifically the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 prohibits nuclear commerce with nuclear weapons states that have not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and accepted International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring of their nuclear facilities.  India conducted nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998 and became a declared nuclear weapons state in the wake of the second series of tests. The U.S. and some other states reacted by imposing sanctions. The nuclear industry in India remained alive but entered a period of uncertainty with the possibility of eventually reaching a state of crisis. As a declared nuclear weapons state and a non-signatory to the Non-Proliferation treaty (NPT), India lacked access to the international atomic energy trade and was straitened for fuel supplies for its nuclear energy plants.  In fact, in July 2005, an Indian official admitted to a BBC reporter that the situation was nearing desperation.  In the absence of the agreement with the United States it would have been necessary to close down nuclear reactors and by extension the nuclear program.  The agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation was received with considerable euphoria in many quarters in India precisely because it offered the prospect of release from India’s nuclear isolation.

Initial reactions in the U.S. Congress to the Manmohan Singh-Bush agreement fell short of the euphoric.  The leaders of the House International Relations Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee were unappreciative of the secrecy attendant on the negotiations that had preceded the nuclear agreement and the fact that Congress had not been consulted.  There were concerns in Congress and among political analysts, nuclear scientists and arms control experts over the impact of the civilian nuclear agreement on U.S. non-proliferation objectives and the implications of according special treatment to India.  As one analyst put it, the Bush Administration was in effect rewarding India for bad behavior and proclaiming that having the bomb was ok provided the state in question was a U.S. ally.  Then there was the issue of India’s relationship with Iran.  When hearings were held in the House International Relations Committee in early September 2005 on the civilian nuclear agreement, a number of legislators voiced reservations over the friendship and growing economic ties between India and Iran.  At corresponding hearings that were held in early November in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chairperson Richard Lugar expressed reservations on India’s nonproliferation record.  In view of less than positive responses in both Congressional panels, it seemed that Indian negotiators would be wise to maintain sober expectations as to the future of the Manmohan Singh-Bush agreement.

Despite initial reactions, an almost diametrically opposite scenario emerges from fast forwarding this account to summer 2006.  On June 27, the House International Relations Committee voted 37-5 in favor of a resolution that would enable civilian nuclear cooperation with India. Two days later, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee awarded the corresponding resolution a 16-2 vote after a debate lasting only ninety minutes.  Subsequently on July 27, the full House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favor of the Indo-U.S. agreement, handsomely defeating three proposed amendments two of which were viewed as potential deal breakers.  In his introductory remarks, Tom Lantos (D-California) co-author of the legislation spoke of the agreement as a tidal shift in ties between the U.S. and India and of being positioned at the hinge of history, building a fundamentally new relationship with India.  Less flowery but not less momentous words were used by Senator Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, at the June 29 debate on the bill in the Senate Committee when he referred to the nuclear agreement as the most important strategic diplomatic initiative undertaken by President Bush.  The legislation still awaits approval in the full Senate and is scheduled to go under consideration in September.  However, by July 26, from all indications the so-called Indo-U.S. strategic partnership appeared to be well on course on the American front.

What has happened to bring about this stunning reversal in a mere matter of months?  As was said at the outset the growing assertiveness of the Sino-Russian axis as represented by the SCO has emerged as a counterweight to U.S. domination and set in motion: among other rivalries–a race for the mastery of Asian energy resources.  Both China and Russia have in addition independently formed economic ties with former vassal states of the U.S. China is poised to supplant the U.S. as Brazil’s largest trading partner.  And most recently Russia has defied the U.S. arms embargo on Venezuela by signing a deal for co-production of assault rifles and supply of fighter jets and helicopters to the Latin American nation.  Washington’s disapproval of the deal was conveyed to Moscow only to encounter terse dismissal from the Kremlin’s spokesperson.  Never before has the U.S. exhibited this degree of impotence.  For well over a year the Bush Administration’s intermittent revelations of belligerent intention toward Iran have contaminated the airwaves or filled news columns but so far the sound and fury has not been translated into the deadly language of bombs and missiles.  Frothing at the mouth, implacable in its hatred of the Islamic Republic, the Bush Administration is perforce required to restrain itself from letting slip the dogs of war.  With its regime change policies in tatters and its vaunted military bogged down in Iraq, the U.S. has been forced to confront the limitations of its power.  Hence the quest for strategic alliances of the kind represented by the Indo-U.S. nuclear cooperation agreement. 

During the unfolding of the saga of the Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear agreement, the U.S. approach to India has been characterized by an interplay of patronizing, bullying and less exceptionable methods.  There has been talk on the U.S. side of helping India to become a major world power in the twenty-first century.  Bullying tactics have been implemented with great success and implicitly endorsed for instance by the highly influential, elite, pro-establishment Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).  Speaking at a public forum on the future of the strategic Indo-U.S. partnership, a fellow of the CFR stated that India would need to tailor its foreign policy to meet U.S. requirements.      Congressman Tom Lantos who used words of import ("tidal shift in ties") in introducing the House bill on the nuclear agreement on July 26, 2006 saw less reason to aspire for eloquence when he participated in debates that were held in early September 2005.  The transcript of the House International Relations Committee hearings on the Indo-US agreement showed that his questioning of India’s ties with Iran and call for compliance with Washington’s Iran policy were couched in language that was particularly arrogant and disdainful of Indian sovereignty:  "…I want to be damn sure that India is mindful of U.S. policies in critical areas such as U.S. policy towards Iran. India cannot pursue a policy vis-à-vis Iran which takes no account of U.S. foreign policy objectives."   The bullying tactics succeeded in frightening the Manmohan Singh government into submission. The leverage that the U.S. had gained over Indian foreign policy became quickly apparent when a U.S. backed, European Union resolution censoring Iran’s nuclear program passed with a majority vote at the meeting of the Board of Governors of  the IAEA on September 24, 2005.  The Manmohan Singh government cast a highly compromised vote that was ultimately adversarial to Iran.  India’s IAEA vote represented an overnight reversal of pre-existing policies toward Iran and was cast without engaging in a public debate on the issue

India’s anti-Iran vote was widely regarded as craven submission to U.S. pressure.  Calls were made for rescinding the anti-Iran vote when the issue came before the IAEA in early February or at least abstaining from voting.  This demand was voiced not only by the Indian public but also the Left Parties.  With a strength of sixty Members of Parliament in a house of 543 members, the Left forms a crucial component of the ruling Congress- led coalition, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA).  The UPA had been voted into power in May 2004 in a stunning verdict that awarded an ignominious defeat to the fascist, right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led coalition that ruled India from 1998-2004..  The Left Parties are supporting the government from the outside and have refused to accept Ministerial berths in the Union Cabinet.  Acting against the expressed views of a significant constituency in the ruling coalition as well as its own people, the Manmohan Singh government once again cast a vote that was supportive of the U.S.  Prior to the casting of this vote, bullying of a very public nature was brought to bear on India by David Mulford, U.S. ambassador to India, who warned the Government of serious consequences if it failed to vote with the U.S. at the IAEA forum.  And as this narrative moves forward to the most recent phase of the Indo-U.S. nuclear agreement, it can be reported with confidence that the arm-twisting tradition is alive and healthy.  Speaking at a public forum on June 22, 2006, Congressman Tom Lantos cautioned India against associating itself with statements against U.S. policies on Iran in bodies like the recently held NAM (Non Aligned Movement) summit if it wanted Congress to approve the accord.  "This is a very negative phenomenon and I earnestly hope that there will be a great deal of care taken by our Indian friends if they want this proposal to get through Congress and become reality that there is very little repetition of this in the future," said the co-author of the Indo-U.S. nuclear agreement bill.    

Despite the jitters that led the Manmohan Singh government to submit to periodic bullying by U.S. intermediaries, there can be no doubt that in the post invasion of Iraq redrawing of global military and economic blocs, the Bush-Cheney junta backed by such luminaries as the rabidly pro-Israeli Congressman Tom Lantos, the insolently meddlesome U.S. Ambassador David Mulford and their ilk is determined to draw India squarely into the U.S. sphere of influence by shepherding the Indo-U.S. nuclear agreement through relevant Congressional channels prior to signing the bill into law.  Abundant indications to this effect are available. In the months preceding President Bush’s India visit which was scheduled to take place in the first week of March 2006 negotiations related to the deal shifted into high gear.  The Manmohan Singh-Bush agreement had committed India to separating civilian and military facilities prior to taking steps for placing the former under IAEA safeguards. Pressure was placed on India to fulfill its share of the bargain ahead of the implementation of reciprocal steps on the U.S. side. The sequencing of steps as well as identification of civilian and military facilities turned out to be thorny issues. The situation seemed to have reached a stalemate when President Bush arrived and moved matters forward by dint of making the imperial if less than elegant pronouncement "I want that deal."  The Vice-President too has been outspoken in pushing the nuclear deal with India.  Speaking at the end of June 2006, just prior to the fine-tuning of the legislation in Congressional committees, Vice-President Cheney called the nuclear pact "one of the most important strategic foreign policy initiatives of our Government" and urged Congress to waste no time in approving the agreement:  "…we must be sure that amendments or delays on the U.S. side do not risk wasting this critical opportunity."
 
It has been observed that the Manmohan Singh-Bush agreement in and of itself is supportive of U.S. hegemony in its implicit endorsement of an international order in which the U.S. is free to unilaterally rewrite international treaties.  From the U.S. point of view, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has indeed been an exceptionally submissive and therefore highly desirable negotiating partner.  The Prime Minister has exhibited a willingness to undo existing ties with Iran and essentially categorize Iran as a rogue state by parroting the U.S. line on the secretive and deceptive nature of Iran’s nuclear program.  The period following the Manmohan Singh-Bush declaration is littered with the abandoned blueprints of the India-Pakistan-Iran (IPI) pipeline project which has been stridently opposed by the U.S.  A natural gas pipeline connecting Iran, Pakistan and India had been talked of for longer than a decade.  By December 2005, talks on the pipeline had reached an advanced stage, and the undertaking seemed to be nearing realization when at the end of January 2006 the Prime Minister abruptly dropped the Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas, Mani Shankar Aiyar.  The Union Minister’s passion and dedication had been crucial to injecting momentum into IPI related negotiations and his demotion was viewed in India as a gesture aimed at appeasing the U.S.  Yet another advocate of the IPI project and cordial ties with Iran, Natwar Singh, former Minister of External Affairs, was forced out in November 2005.  The implementation of the IPI project is in fact both critical to India’s energy security and supportive of regional harmony.  Peace activists in India as well as Pakistan had hoped that the gas pipeline, also known as the peace pipe, would build the foundations of economic interdependence between India and Pakistan and thereby lay to rest the enmities that had bedeviled relations between the two countries from their inception in 1947.  As pointed out by Siddharth Varadarajan, award-winning journalist for the left-leaning national newspaper The Hindu, the Manmohan Singh government’s pursuit of cozy relations with the U.S. runs contrary to the cultivation of alliances that are rooted in the history and geography of the Asian continent.

In an interview that he gave The Hindu at the end of January 2006, noted writer and activist Tariq Ali offered the following prescient insight:  "…there is no surety that what the United States has managed to hegemonize is going to remain."  Developments on the Indian side from April-May onward and especially from mid July have lent substance to Tariq Ali’s remark and could explain the all but palpable anxiety that seems to underlie Vice-President Cheney’s description of the Indo-U.S. nuclear agreement as a critical opportunity.  In the 2004 national elections, the Left Parties attained the strength of sixty members in India’s Lok Sabha or lower House of Parliament and became a force to be reckoned with in national politics.  The Congress led UPA is critically dependent on Leftist support since their withdrawal from the coalition would result in the unraveling of the UPA majority in Parliament and the consequent fall of the government.  The Indian Left has been vehemently opposed to the Manmohan Singh government’s reversal on the Iran issue and its deferential approach to the Bush Administration and U.S. power in general.  They have been unable to use the leverage they possess by dint of being a key constituent of the UPA since their withdrawal could pave the way for the return of the fascist, minority hating BJP.  Fully aware of the bind in which the Left finds itself, the Manmohan Singh government has been free to pursue its policy of ingratiating itself with the U.S. and has effectively ignored the Left’s tireless demands and campaigns on behalf of an independent foreign policy for India.  This situation has been transformed in the wake of dramatic realignments and power shifts that took place in India in April-May 2006.  Legislative elections that were held in four states and a Union Territory gave massive victories to the Left in two states.  The Left is also a key constituent of the coalition that legislative elections have brought to power in a third state.  The results of the legislative elections have been described by the national newsmagazine Frontline as a historical high point for the Indian Left in terms of its strength in the country’s legislatures and Parliament both quantitatively and qualitatively.  The Left Parties have won their massive mandate from the Indian electorate by conducting their pre-election campaigns on a platform in which national sovereignty and resistance to U.S. domination and U.S. instigated neo-liberal economic reforms had formed key issues.  Signaling his recognition of the role that had opened up for the Indian Left, Prakash Karat, Member of Parliament and General Secretary, Communist Party of India (Marxist), promised an increased intervention for the Left parties in national politics. 

The grounds for such an intervention are currently in the making and this time around chances are the Manmohan Singh government will not be able to brush aside its coalition partners and implement an agenda dictated by the U.S.  Recently the controversy surrounding the Indo-U.S. nuclear agreement acquired a new layer when the Indian Foreign Secretary returned from meeting his American counterpart in London and admitted that the legislation that was to be ultimately approved by both houses of Congress was to contain references that would be unpalatable to India.  Speaking to journalists on July 19, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed the touching confidence that President Bush would take care of existing concerns and sought to play down differences between Indian and American positions.  The Prime Minister’s damage control strategy did not fly well.  At the left end of the spectrum, political players as well as media analysts reacted sharply to India’s possible entrapment in a demeaning agreement implemented via Congressional legislation that constituted a radical rewriting of agreements signed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Bush.  In the vanguard were the revelations in the editorial that appeared in The Hindu. Under questioning from The Hindu, the Foreign Secretary had listed the legislative conditionalities that had aroused Indian reservations. These pertained to the denial of  nuclear enrichment and reprocessing technology, the nature of  IAEA safeguards and fuel assurances, and end-use verification procedures. Not mincing any words, the editorial called on the Government to emerge from semi-denial and spelled out the key issues on which no compromise could be allowed. A few days later The Hindu ran an even more strongly worded rebuke to the Government written by a former Defense Minister and Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, a statutory and independent executive body chaired by the Prime Minister of India. Reminding the Government that to date India had refused to endorse any discriminatory international arrangement or enter into any agreement that compromised its sovereignty, the highly placed official called on the Prime Minister to seek Parliamentary scrutiny and approval before committing India irrevocably to agreements with the U.S or the IAEA. With the Left Parties conveying to the government their concerns over the shape of the legislation under consideration in the U.S Congress and circulating to various political parties a paper explaining their stand, the stage has been set for a Parliamentary debate on the nuclear deal. Citing the discrepancies between the draft legislation in the U.S. Congress and the agreements inked so far, Prakash Karat General Secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said that the Government would have to adhere to parameters set by Parliament.

As yet unmentioned by President Bush in a State of Union address but presumably noted by American policy makers, at this crucial moment in the induction of India as an obedient member of the U.S. empire, an Indian axis of evil has come into its own.  The members thereof consist of the Left Parties, a predominantly working class or underprivileged electorate that has awarded the Leftists a progressively stronger mandate and a free press with strong anti-imperialist traditions represented in the English language by such publications as The Hindu and its sister publication, the courageous fortnightly Frontline and the venerable Economic and Political Weekly.  Even as the Manmohan Singh government turns its back on Asian integration, The Hindu has made a point of keeping before the public eye and giving representation to the views of the ministerial casualties of the Indo-U.S. rapprochement–the disgraced former External Affairs Minister, Natwar Singh, and the demoted Mani Shankar Aiyar, former Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas.  The Pentagon is known to have strong arm tactics for dealing with dissidence.  A few well placed missiles could possibly do away with the offices of the Indian Left as well as their occupants.  The same method of disposal could be applied to the press strongholds of opposition to U.S. hegemony.  Of course belligerent terms do not obtain between India and the U.S. but an existing state of non-belligerence did not stop the Clinton administration from destroying a pharmaceuticals factory in Sudan with cruise missiles.  So the parties and the publications at the left end of the political spectrum could possibly be eliminated.  But how to deal with an electorate that does not support U.S. interests?  The technique of economic strangulation is in use by the U.S. and the E.U. for punishing Palestinian voters who failed to elect a pliant government but the same strategy does not apply to the Indian instance.  A dilemma now obtains for U.S. policy makers.  The humble Indian voter who has obstinately rejected neo-liberal policies and given both a regional and national mandate to the Left parties: in a sprawling, continent-sized nation, who is to rid the U.S. Empire of this troublesome entity?

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