India’s house of cards

August 11, 2008

Three weeks ago, the Indian government did everything but raise the dead to win a crucial vote on its nuclear deal with the United States. Jailed members of parliament were given temporary release in order to vote, MPs in intensive care were wheeled into the chamber, and there was talk of multi-million dollar bribes being offered for MPs to change their votes.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh won, in the end, but the nuclear house of cards he has built over the past few years is still tottering. The nuclear deal got past the International Atomic Energy Agency a week ago, but it faces a stormier passage when it goes before the Nuclear Suppliers Group later this month. Indeed, NSG members that hate the deal but don’t want to anger New Delhi can kill it just by stalling for a little while.
President Bush must send the completed deal, approved by the IAEA and the NSG, to the U.S. Congress before early September, or it is effectively dead. Congress must have the bill for thirty days before it can vote on it. It is currently scheduled to adjourn in late September -- and if the favored candidate in the presidential election, Barack Obama, wins the November vote, the deal will not be resurrected after he takes office.
How do we know that? Because Obama really doesn’t like nuclear weapons. Late last year, he rashly promised that he would never use nuclear weapons against civilians. Then, when he was criticized for that “gaffe” -- who ever heard of a president who wasn’t willing to kill civilians? -- he went flat out and said that the United States should seek “a world in which there are no nuclear weapons.” Not even American ones.
Obama has not specifically addressed the U.S.-India nuclear deal, but he has said that he will strengthen the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which is certainly not compatible with accepting the deal that President George W. Bush cut with Manmohan Singh. That deal is all about circumventing the NPT so that India (which has not signed the treaty) gets to keep its nuclear weapons, and still gets permission to buy nuclear materials and technology on the international market.
If you get tangled up in the question of what is fair, there will be no end to the discussion. The NPT is a crudely pragmatic device that was meant to head off a world of twenty or thirty nuclear-armed countries, and it has been moderately successful. Nobody is going to take India’s nuclear weapons away, but there is still value in trying to prevent the further spread of such dreadful capabilities.
In that context, it does not help to give India a free pass, which is what is now being attempted by Washington. Yes, India has ignored the NPT and developed nuclear weapons, but the Bush administration wants to exempt it from the NPT sanctions that stop everybody else from selling it nuclear materials and technology because… well, because the United States would like to have India as an ally.
The U.S.-India deal is not really about nuclear weapons. It is about military cooperation on a much broader front; in fact, it is an alliance under another name. The target of the proposed alliance is China, which both the Bush administration and its Asian allies, notably in Japan, see as an emergent strategic threat. If they can sign the Indians up too, then China has a real two-front problem, and that may make it behave more cautiously. Or so the conventional strategic thinking goes.
The nuclear deal between the United States and India that has used up so much political time and energy over the past three years is the U.S. down payment on the Indian alliance. The United States gets a big, nuclear-armed India as an ally on China’s southern and western frontiers. India gets China as a potential enemy, but it also gets access to American high-tech weapons, and it is washed clean of its sins on the nuclear proliferation front.
But the Nuclear Suppliers Group is unlikely to accept the deal without imposing some conditions (like no more nuclear tests) that the Indian parliament will not accept, and the U.S. Congress may adjourn next month without voting on the legislation. Bush is gone in January, and Manmohan Singh’s government, which must call an election next year, is probably gone by next July.
All that effort, all those lies, all those favors called in -- and still it’s probably not going to happen. India will probably not become America’s loyal ally in Asia. Good.