Indo-US Nuclear Deal: Seeking Synergy in Bilateralism
Manpreet Sethi ·       

Rarely in the history of independent India has any issue of foreign policy attracted as much attention, called for such investment of political and intellectual energies, and divided the polity as fractiously as the Indo-US civilian nuclear cooperation agreement did between 2005 and 2008. Of course, some of this was expected given the unprecedented nature of the bilateral relationship being forged after a long period of estrangement. It is well known that Indo-US nuclear relations had been strained over the American insistence that India’s strategic programme follow the mantra of “cap, roll and eliminate”, and that its civilian nuclear programme open itself up to full scope safeguards in order to qualify for nuclear cooperation.

Desirous of a rapid growth in domestic nuclear generation capacity through international cooperation, India was nevertheless intransigent over accepting full-scope safeguards over its indigenous programme. From 2002-03 onwards, therefore, India had argued for a special waiver from the NSG guidelines given its large energy needs, the desire to meet them in an environmentally sustainable manner, its expertise in nuclear energy generation, and its non proliferation credentials. A fortuitous set of circumstances created the possibility of such cooperation in 2005, and some ingenious and persistent negotiations driven by the top leadership in USA and India finally reached culmination in September 2008.

The many twists and turns during the stormy negotiations make for an interesting story and the recent book from Routledge is among the early ones off the mark after the conclusion of the deal. Of course, during the three years of negotiations, there were umpteen analytical articles and journalistic pieces, but this is the first full-length book that recounts the entire process leading up to the conclusion of the landmark agreement. It is also holistic in its approach bringing together the domestic and international, pro- and anti-agreement, and technical and political perspectives. The book also performs great service to future analysts by putting together several important documents as Appendices. Finding relevant primary source material in one place would ease the task for many, as would the two sections on thematic comparison of legislations.

Amongst the many strengths of the book is the fact, as explained by the Editor, PR Chari, that it contains articles written by a blend of young and old, experienced analysts and new interns, as well as academics and practitioners. This mix promises fresh insights into the many facets of the Indo-US nuclear deal. For instance, the chapter on Tarapur by Eric Gonsalves, a seasoned Indian diplomat, adequately recounts the experience of the first Indo-US nuclear engagement and explains why it cast such a negative shadow on the current deal. Drawing a lesson from the past he wisely concludes, “the best way to compromise a dispute is to reach an honourable agreement using diplomacy” and this will have to be followed in the future too since there will always be differences, even in a ‘strategic relationship’, since countries obviously follow their national interest. In fact, more of this will be required as India engages with an emerging multi-polar system.

Yet another notable contribution to the volume is that by Vidya Shankar Aiyar who has traced the role of media during the negotiation of the agreement. The very inclusion of a chapter on this subject illustrates the importance of electronic media in current times as a potent influence on public opinion. Certainly, given the technical issues involved, the many steps that the agreement had to go through, and the diverse interpretations it was subjected to, made a coherent coverage of the deal not an easy task. Neither was information from official sources easy to come by. This often led to speculation that might have done more harm than good in specific instances. Lessons must be drawn from this for the future since the media will remain an important player in national security and its strengths must be intelligently exploited in the interest of the nation.

Another interesting dimension of the deal is brought out by David Temple in his chapter on the role of lobbyists in US congress. For India, the conclusion of this agreement was the first real experience of sorts on the critical role lobbies and pressure groups not affiliated with the administration play in the US in swinging a case. Going by the facts presented in the essay, India did learn to make good use of this tool. However, it is ironical that members of the legislature in both countries had a common complaint in that the authorities on the other side seemed to know more about the proposals being negotiated than parliaments within the country. There is also a lesson to be drawn from the US system of Congressional hearings where top government officials testify on an issue and thus contribute to informed decision making.

R Rajaraman’s article that highlights the linkage between the energy and military dimensions of India’s nuclear effort too stands out for its balanced and comprehensive handling of technical and strategic issues. Another technical issue is covered by Ashwin Kumar in his assessment of the technical challenges facing India’s fast breeder reactors. Recounting the experience of some other nations on FBRs, he is pessimistic of Indian success. However, he fails to adequately explain the compulsions of India in following this route, its advantages in terms of long-term energy security, and the achievements of the Indian nuclear enterprise. While safety concerns deserve top most priority, the addition of the above dimensions would have made the article more balanced.

On the whole, the book makes for interesting reading of the story of the conclusion of the Indo-US nuclear deal. The concluding essay by the editor sounds a note of caution on how the future could unfurl. While conceding the criticality of the deal, he however opines that it could not be the “touchstone” on which the relationship could be founded. It would be certainly naïve to anchor inter-state relations on one issue. Yet, there is no doubt that the ground covered during the negotiation of the Indo-US nuclear deal would stand the two countries in good stead as they interact on bilateral, regional or international issues of common concern in the future.