India-US Civilian Nuclear Cooperation

Like the news equivalent of the proverbial bad penny, the India-US agreement for civilian nuclear cooperation has taken center stage in the national political discourse. Since mid-February there have been an avalanche of US statements on the importance of concluding the deal without further ado. With the US ambassador to India, David Mulford, in the vanguard, deadlines are being set for clinching the nuclear accords. Once again the Congress-led coalition government teeters on the brink of collapse with a critical constituent, the Left parties, threatening to withdraw support if the government proceeds with the deal. That US policy makers have issued an ultimatum to the Indian government is obvious to even political neophytes. Indian officials for their part have hastened to deny being under pressure to conclude the deal. In the spring a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of love, so wrote the Victorian poet. No doubt, the bard would have taken note of a vastly different spring ritual if he had witnessed the timing of the annual peregrinations of high ranking US officials to India’s capital. Soon it will be spring time in Delhi and once again as in earlier years of the Bush presidency, the capital finds itself playing host to the emissaries of the global empire-first a group of influential senators, Joe Biden, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, then Defense Secretary Robert Gates and, in the first week of March, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher. With the coming of these august beings, the nuclear deal which was in abeyance—to the point of being declared to be dead—has regained its sway over India’s political classes.1


The nuclear deal had gathered all but unstoppable momentum at the end of July 2007 when Indian and US interlocutors agreed on a draft text for the 123 treaty after months of contentious negotiations. Domestic opposition to the nuclear agreement led in Parliament by the Left Front has been largely responsible for the deal remaining stalled. The Left Bloc has responded to the resurrection of the agreement by reiterating its opposition on  the grounds that it will endanger India’s sovereignty and independent foreign policy. A strongly worded commentary that appeared in People’s Democracy, the organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has issued a counter ultimatum: It is for the Congress leadership to decide whether it wants to be seen as kowtowing to the pressure of the Bush administration or acting democratically and heeding the voice of Parliament and the people.2


 The resurrection of the nuclear deal coincides with the announcement of a tenure extension for India’s ambassador to the US, Ronen Sen of headless chicken fame. The news will gladden the strategic thinkers who lamented that the impending retirement of this key negotiator would derail the deal. As the Manmohan Singh government’s representative in Washington, Ronen Sen had played a key role in ensuring a smooth passage for legislation related to the nuclear deal in both houses of Congress. The worthy ambassador’s ire was aroused when the successful conclusion of the nuclear deal was jeopardized by the adverse reception given to the draft 123 treaty in Parliament. In an interview that he gave India Abroad, the widely distributed North American publication, Ronen Sen referred to the members of parliament who took exception to certain clauses in the draft treaty as headless chicken running around looking for a comment here and a comment there.3  Ronen Sen was summoned to New Delhi where he was required to tender his apology in person before Parliament. The incident led to the ambassador’s censure by the Privileges Committee of both Houses of Parliament and made Parliamentary history of sorts since it was the first time that a top diplomat had appeared before legislators in connection with remarks of a questionable nature. The furor over the ambassador’s publicly expressed contempt for the Indian people’s elected representatives seems to have been forgotten in a mere matter of months. By extending the tenure of a known adherent of the so-called India-US strategic partnership, the Manmohan Singh government has signaled its eagerness to seal the deal. Spokespersons for the Bush administration responded by applauding the extension of Ronen Sen’s ambassadorial tenure and hailing him as a great friend of the US.


From its inception, the nuclear agreement has been sold by its Indian and American proponents in the name of India’s energy security needs. This marketing is at odds with the facts relating to the expected benefits from augmenting nuclear sources of power. Currently nuclear energy forms 3% of the total power that is generated. Sober analysts have repeatedly demonstrated that the enhanced power generation capacity from the projected installation of additional nuclear reactors will meet at best merely 7% of India’s energy needs. Nevertheless the votaries of nuclear energy have persisted in maintaining that continued economic growth hinges on access to energy from nuclear sources. Along with the revived push to cement the deal, the old, discredited arguments in favor of nuclear energy are once again being advanced by government spokespersons and media analysts. The brouhaha over  nuclear energy gives this power source miraculously transformational attributes. India desperately needs nuclear energy and related technology to keep the economy running, declared a recent Times of India editorial.4 The leader article however made no mention of the minuscule power generation gains to be realized by the nuclear agreement with the US.


Natural gas to be supplied by Iran via a pipeline passing through Pakistan has long been recognized as a cheap and efficient source of energy. But the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline project remains in limbo although it is expected to alleviate the traditional hostility between India and Pakistan by linking the countries in relations of economic dependency. The relative dearth of discussion on the IPI project contrasts with the strident promotion of the nuclear deal by India’s political classes, media analysts and commentariat. The prominence given to energy security issues by the nuclear enthusiasts makes the inaction on the IPI project all the more glaring. India has maintained an ambiguous stance in the face of an onslaught of US demands to drop the  pipeline project. US opposition to the IPI project stems from its near endemic hostility to Iran and long-standing policy of seeking regional and economic isolation for the Islamic republic. India has made some efforts to avoid the appearance of capitulating to the US. From time to time there have been official statements affirming India’s commitment to the IPI project. Nevertheless, in the last several months, important meeting with the project partners have been missed by India on some pretext or the other. These derailments have not gone completely unnoticed. In an honorable exception to the media silence on the IPI project, The Hindu has commented as follows: For a regime that has made much of seeking long-term solutions to the country’s growing energy needs, the lack of urgency so patently on display on the Iran gas pipeline front is shocking.5 And in a statement on Iran’s readiness to sign the deal, a Foreign Office spokesperson has included a barely veiled mention of the baneful US role in inhibiting the agreement: We are sure we will get a result soon if the individual parties involved take their own decisions.6 The reference here is not to Pakistan. On the IPI project, Pakistan has risked incurring the wrath of Washington and has adopted a course that best suits the country’s interests. Last November, Pakistan finalized its share of the pipeline contract with Iran and the two countries announced their willingness to proceed with the project even if India were to pull out.  


Sober political observers are left bewildered by New Delhi’s continued willingness to obey the US diktat despite the transformations brought about in the global distribution of power by the US military debacle in Iraq. New Delhi has been slow?to say the least– in making foreign policy shifts that are attuned to the emergence of new political realities in the form of Russia’s resurgence as a global power and the rise of such regional powers as Iran and Venezuela. At a time when India has launched international tenders for massive acquisitions of fighter jets, transport planes, artillery and other military equipment, the benefits to the US from drawing New Delhi into its system of alliances are obvious enough. As a purchaser of American military hardware, as a lucrative market for non-military exports and as a member of an Asia-based NATO style alliance for re-consolidating US hegemony over Asia’s energy resources?in every respect the Indian connection promises to stand the US in good stead. How India stands to gain from becoming a pillar in the US security system is less apparent. It has been noted that US interest in India was first expressed in the 2002 “National Security Strategy for the US” which states that US national interest requires strong relations with India.7 Since then, US spokespersons have promised repeatedly to help India to become a great power in the twenty first century. Lured by the seductions of that promise, India’s decision makers seem to be unable to recognize that subservience is hardly the hallmark of an aspirant to great power status. At this critical juncture India’s policy makers and strategic community may be well advised to pause and ask just what forces are driving the all but palpable US anxiety to seal the nuclear deal.




1.      Vijay Prashad, “The nuke deal is dead”, Counterpunch (October 23, 2007), http://www.counterpunch.org/prashad10232007.html

2.      Vinay Kumar, “Left parties to take all steps to stop India-US nuclear deal”, The Hindu (March 7, 2008), http://www.hindu.com/2008/03/07/stories/2008030760301200.htm.

3.      Aziz Haniffa, “Ambassador Sen: ‘We will have zero credibility”, India Abroad (August 20, 2007), http://www.rediff.com/news/2007/aug/20inter.htm.

4.      “Seal the Deal”, The Times of India (March 4, 2007).

5.      “Foot off the gas pedal”, The Hindu (February 13, 2008) http://www.hindu.com/2008/02/13/stories/2008021354551000.htm.

6.      “Tehran ready to sign Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline deal”, Fars News Agency (March 6, 2008), http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=8612160264

7.      Kamal Mitra Chenoy and Anuradha M Chenoy, “India’s Foreign Policy Shifts and the Calculus of Power”, Economic and Political Weekly (September 1, 2007).

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