, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

It is ten years to the day since the Indo-US nuclear deal was announced. At the time, there were great expectations – for Indians, the deal signified an end to the US-led era of atomic apartheid while the United States hoped that it had opened up a huge market for its wares while simultaneously securing an ally to balance a rising potential rival. A decade down the road, these illusions have evapourated and there are recriminations on both sides. Critics of the deal had repeatedly warned that Washington would not find in India the ally or market that it sought. This has borne out to be true, though it is difficult to tell whether the prognosis was insightful analysis or just fate that the Bush administration overlapped significantly with the “lost decade” in Indian politics. Whatever be the reason, India’s slavish adherence to a foreign policy ideology well past its due date compounded with its ill-advised nuclear civil liability law doused any hope of transformative politics in the Indian Ocean Region.

The first warning that the Indo-US nuclear deal was not going to usher in an era of growth and prosperity was in the length of time the Lok Sabha took to ratify the agreement and the manner in which it was done. After three years of histrionics in parliament and a cash-for-votes scandal, the nuclear agreement was finally accepted just before the end of the strongly supportive Bush administration. There was a great deal of suspicion about the United States and its motives in India, not entirely unreasonable given Uncle Sam’s unabated mischief in neighbouring Pakistan. Few Indian parliamentarians demonstrated the imagination to look past antiquated Cold War binaries and fewer still could fully fathom the implications of a civilian nuclear programme separated from military goals and targets. The passing of a strong ally in the Bush administration from Washington while Delhi dithered was a lost opportunity for India to hasten the several benefits of the nuclear deal.

The Manmohan Singh government was able to squeak the historic nuclear deal through Parliament but at great cost. Among the stipulations of the agreement on civil nuclear cooperation was that an explicit nuclear insurance system be established. Convention dictated that the operator was solely responsible for any accidents at a nuclear facility but the India’s lawmakers, in their infinite wisdom, thought it best to make suppliers of nuclear equipment just as liable. Perhaps the psychosis of the 1984 Union Carbide accident clouded their judgment or their arrogant faith that the Indian market was too big to be ignored was their undoing or even their bloody mindedness not to give the historically anti-US United Progressive Alliance the fruits of four years of labour by the National Democratic Alliance, but the Bharatiya Janata Party along with the Communist Party of India made the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill an albatross around the neck of the nuclear deal. Despite Russian, French, and American interest to build some 24 reactors at four sites across India, only one at Kudankulam from a 1988 deal with the Soviet Union was completed in the ten years since the nuclear deal.

It is not true to say that the Indo-US nuclear deal was dead on arrival: it did have an anaemic pulse. Thanks to the opening of nuclear commerce to India, the supply of nuclear fuel was suddenly not a bottleneck in India’s nuclear energy programme. Reactors that had been operating at load factors between 35 and 50 per cent almost overnight caught up to international levels of operation. The average load factor at a nuclear plant in India today hovers around 72 per cent and some units like RAPP V have shown the remarkable potential of the entire programme by operating at continuously for 765 days with a load factor frequently above 95 per cent. Even this, sadly, is a drop in the bucket to what could have been achieved over the past ten years.

The Indo-US nuclear deal did not occur in a vacuum. While some Indians view it as merely setting right a a four-decades-old wrong, a breakthrough in such a sensitive area is always coupled with greater expectations of broad geopolitical synergy. For the United States, this primarily meant a response to a growing Chinese menace. Washington reasoned that a stronger, more confident, and assertive China that also shares a border with India would be reason for concern to Delhi. Given the overlapping interests, it was only reasonable to expect enthusiasm from India on closer defence cooperation and consultation on issues of geopolitical interests. If only.

Washington did not count on the cold reception to their proposal in Delhi. After all, how could cooperation against a common foe concern elicit ill will? However, Indians read the opening as a US offer to India to play second fiddle in a grand alliance against China. The Indian ego could certainly not accept this, regardless of the indubitable American superiority in military, economic, and technological capabilities. With a disregard for reality that has rarely been seen outside postmodern theory classes, India fell back on its old platitudes of strategic autonomy and non-alignment to spurn an alliance with the United States but pretend to a “relationship of equals,” The prevailing wisdom of the time – and all the times before then – was that India should not antagonise China unnecessarily or it may invite hostility from Beijing.

That wisdom turned out to be not so wise after all. Delhi’s supplication did not bring the result it sought. Over the past decade, China’s military assistance to Pakistan has increased and it continues to develop Islamabad’s nuclear programme. Of late, Chinese submarines have become more frequent in the Indian Ocean and there have been at least two major incursions into India by the Chinese Army at Aksai Chin. The Chinese presence in the Gilgit-Baltistan region has only solidified with Pakistan handing over some of the Indian territory it occupies to Beijing. China still supports insurgents in India’s northeastern sector, not to mention their sympathisers in the neighbourhood. None of this has abated while Delhi chose not to antagonise Beijing but ten years were wasted in empty posturing between the United States and India. To be sure, the tempo of joint military exercises between the two nations has increased as has defence sales but those are accidental and insufficient causes that will not deliver their full potential until an honest chat on Asia’s geopolitics has been had.

The tepid response from Delhi strengthened the hand of the Pakistan lobby in the US legislature. The United States continued to court Pakistan beyond a level India was comfortable with to the detriment of the latter’s position in Afghanistan. Unfortunate misunderstandings such as the Khobragade affair soured relations even further between two countries that were both already disappointed with each other. Ironically, the US denial of a visa to present prime minister, Narendra Modi, in 2005 turned out to be almost a non-issue despite the media painting it as a bit of a train wreck in the run-up to India’s general elections in May 2014. There have been disagreements over the sale of some military equipment but that has been largely due to India’s refusal to sign what the Americans call ‘foundational documents.’ These agreements allow the United States to verify that India is indeed the sole end user of the equipment that is sold to them and that they are not selling it to anyone else. The agreements also allow the US and Indian militaries to work in a more integrated manner in their zones of mutual interest. However, India has refused to accept such close scrutiny or linkages and as a result has been refused some equipment and has been given more primitive versions of other systems.

The nuclear deal was supposed to signify a change in mindset and be the dawn of a new era in Indo-US relations. It was not just about the sale of reactors and nuclear fuel but about a common vision of a new world order. Almost upon its tenth anniversary, we see that those dreams have not yet taken off. For all the effort that went behind making the Indo-US deal – special waiver for India from the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an India-specific Additional Protocol from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the amendment of domestic laws in at least a couple of countries – no one has anything to show for it. If anything, the nuclear deal is an epitaph to unbridled optimism and faith in reason in the realm of international affairs. As PG Wodehouse wrote in My Man Jeeves, “…it’s always just when a chappie is feeling particularly top-hole, and more than usually braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with a bit of lead piping.”