The Demise of an India Nuke Deal

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Jim Watson / AFP / Getty

U.S. President George W. Bush, left, and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh address a joint press conference.

A controversial nuclear deal between India and the United States that required leaders of both countries to confront domestic opposition appears to have failed on the Indian side. Talks between the ruling party of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the communist allies on whom his coalition depends to stay in power failed on Monday to overcome the leftists' opposition that will effectively neuter the deal. The Prime Minister, who has staked his reputation on the deal that promised to bring energy-starved India back into the legitimate international trade in civilian nuclear fuel and technology despite the country's nuclear-weapons program and its failure to adopt the Non-Proliferation Treaty, appears to have accepted defeat: Last week, a subdued Singh shrugged that that while disappointing, "it would not be the end of life" if the deal failed to win Indian approval. Perhaps, but it could spell the end of his political viability.

On a tour of Africa last week, Singh phoned President George W. Bush to apologize for "certain difficulties" that left the agreement in what a Times of India editorial dubbed a "deep freezer." Singh has been dogged by his coalition partners in the Left Front, spearheaded by the Communists, who reject the deal as giving too much leverage to the U.S. The alliance between Singh's centrist Congress Party and the Left Front has always been fragile, bridging differences on issues ranging from India's geopolitical alignment to the licensing of supermarket chains. And to the leftists, the idea of signing a landmark pact that would align India with the U.S. "imperialists" and require annual certification of India's good standing by the White House, was grounds for divorce.

While they may restrain him from concluding a pact of such epic importance, Singh can ill afford to lose the support of the communists, because their departure from his coalition would have forced snap elections 18 months early. If he had been counting on convincing the Left to drop its opposition to the deal at the eleventh hour, he has badly miscalculated. Communist demands that the government refrain from negotiating nuclear safeguards with the IAEA — the next phase of implementing the deal — have prevailed, and it is the government that appears to have been forced to back down at the eleventh hour.

The rebellion of Singh's communist coalition partners has been brewing for some time: The Left Front resented India's betrayal of its traditional ally Iran when Singh's government voted alongside the U.S. to refer Tehran's nuclear program to the U.N. Security Council. And they oppose India being drawn closer to the U.S. strategic orbit, staging mass demonstrations last month against India's involvement in joint naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal with the U.S., Australia and Japan.

But such old-school "anti-imperialist" posturing appears somewhat anachronistic, if not hypocritical, when an economically resurgent China — no longer the Maoist backwater once so admired by India's Communist vanguard — looms large to the north, while some of the Indian leftists, like the Communist government in West Bengal, advocate trade-friendly reforms and the creation of special economic zones.

Meanwhile, India's actual opposition, led by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, is positively gleeful over the government's failure: Last Tuesday, BJP chief L.K. Advani derided Singh as the "weakest Prime Minister India has ever had," mocking his "opportunistic alliance" with the Left Front. Of course, the BJP had also agitated vociferously against the deal, but many suspect that had the hawkish, U.S.-friendly BJP been in power, they would have more likely embraced the nuclear treaty.

Cynical posturing is a fact of political life in an impoverished India where politicians pander to populist sentiment. Congress came to power thanks to rural voters disillusioned with the BJP's promises of an urban, middle class "India Shining" while they remained dirt poor. The stalled nuclear deal is a symptom of a deeper malaise in the current administration. Other key initiatives of Singh's are also in trouble: A ban on child labor looks toothless one year on, while a scheme to provide every household in India with at least 100 days of work has been dogged by chronic mismanagement and charges of graft. If such bread-and-butter initiatives can falter, then Singh — hailed as India's great liberalizer when he was finance chief in 1991 — can forget about banking reform or trimming India's bloated, corruption-tainted bureaucracy.

The world's largest democracy may, in fact, be left with a teetering, impotent government, whose Prime Minister has suffered a massive international embarrassment. Congress appears to lack the political strength to push forward the economic liberalization measures that many in India's business community and in the West had expected. "By backing down after raising the bar so high," the Times of India editorial warned, "the government has signaled, in effect, that it is weak and open to blackmail on any issue by any pressure group in parliament. With one-and-a-half years remaining for polls, and the Left demonstrating it holds the whip hand in government, hopes for economic reform are dim."

Less than two months ago when Singh's Leftist partners began clamoring for the deal to be scuppered, the beleaguered Prime Minister argued that "there is today talk the world over of a nuclear renaissance and we cannot afford to miss the bus." This week, though, there's a clear sense that the bus has come and gone, and with it, perhaps any confidence in Singh's ability to transform India.