India in Crisis Over U.S. Nuke Deal

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Correction Amended Aug. 24, 2007

Last month, after two years of wrangling, India and the U.S. finalized the details of an agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation that seemed to be worth the wait. Under the accord, India will be allowed to trade with all legitimate nuclear states for the nuclear fuel and technology the energy-starved nation desperately needs to keep its booming economy on track. In exchange, New Delhi agrees to put its civilian nuclear program under international safeguards. Its nuclear weapons program, meanwhile, is allowed to continue unimpeded, though India has agreed to work with the U.S. towards an international fissile material cut-off treaty. It's a foreign policy triumph that wins India a seat at the nuclear high table while allowing it to refrain from signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The U.S., in return, gets brownie points for bringing two-thirds of India's reactors under IAEA safeguards and, more importantly, forges closer ties with a country it sees as key to balancing China's rising influence in Asia. The deal, many security and nuclear experts say, is more than India could have hoped for.

India's left-wing parties don't agree. Long suspicious of American intentions, they say the deal — based on U.S. legislation known as the Hyde Act of 2006, which includes a nonbinding proviso that India's foreign policy be aligned with that of the U.S. — compromises India's sovereignty. Now, that opposition has brought Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government to the brink of collapse. With 59 seats in India's 552-member lower house of Parliament, the leftists, including the powerful Communist Party of India (Marxist), have been a significant outside partner in the ruling Congress Party-led coalition. On Monday, the leftists accepted Singh's offer to set up an expert panel to study the agreement. But they insisted the government must first stop negotiations with the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which governs matters of nuclear trade, and the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose blessings are necessary to make the deal a reality.

That's a condition the government refuses to accept. "Our government is committed to the development of nuclear energy," Singh said on Tuesday. "All political parties should appreciate this vital national interest."

It's possible the political brouhaha may force an early election, although that's something none of the key political parties want at this stage. More likely, the dispute will leave India stuck with a lame-duck government, hamstrung by its erstwhile left-wing partners. That would have a chilling effect on India's vital economic liberalization plans — labor reform, the privatization of state-run enterprises and the loosening of restrictions on foreign direct investment — all of which the leftist parties have opposed in the past. If the nuclear deal fails, India will have lost more than just entry into the nuclear regime: with its own house in disarray, it will lose much of the credibility it has laboriously built up in the international community as an aspiring great power.

The biggest gainer, in that case, will be China. It has voiced concerns over the growing ties between Washington and New Delhi, which it views as a challenge to its own regional ambitions, and has reportedly been discussing a deal mirroring the Indo-U.S. agreement to allow India's arch-rival Pakistan access to nuclear fuel and technology. Some in India say the leftist parties are playing right into China's hands. "What is remarkable about the left's self-view of India is how weak they think the country is," says media commentator and political analyst Manoj Joshi. "They may do well to remember that India — with its nuclear-tipped armed forces, 8 percent-plus growth rate and burgeoning foreign exchange reserves — has never been stronger."

The original version of this story incorrectly stated that India had committed to help set up a missile technology control regime as part of its agreement with the United States. India has agreed to abide by existing missile control regimes and to work with the U.S. on a treaty to control the trade of fissile materials.