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Lights out for the nuclear deal?

Dr Cherian Samuel is Research Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • October 05, 2006

    The speed and relative ease with which the Indo-US nuclear deal raced through the respective committees of Congress and the margin by which it was assented to by the House of Representatives on 27 July, scarcely four months after it was introduced in Congress, created the expectation that the same scenario would play out in the Senate. These hopes have been belied by the failure of the Senate to pass the Bill before it recessed for the mid-term elections.

    One perception of this development is that Senators were not fully signed on to President Bush's vision of a strategic partnership with India, and its benefits for the United States, and therefore put the brakes on the deal by bringing up procedural hurdles. A closer examination of the sequence of events shows that the outcome could largely be attributed to happenstance - a series of events and outcomes that looks like they might have been arranged even though they were really accidental.

    The Bush initiative got a very tepid welcome in Congress, not out of opposition to the bill per se, but as a consequence of the internal dynamics of the relationship between the legislature and the executive. There was a perception that the Administration had ridden rough-shod over the legislature, first negotiating a Bill without due consultation, presenting it to Congress as a fait accompli, and then trying to rush the legislation through, which Congress saw as trampling on its fundamental right of advise and consent.

    The momentum picked up once lobby groups impressed on the Congressional leadership that dragging their feet on the bill would have a negative impact on the burgeoning economic relations between the two countries. Vocal protestations to the proposed legislation from the non-proliferation lobby notwithstanding, there wasn't much opposition to the Bill from amongst the rank and file of Congress for whom the legislation was neither a political hot potato nor electorally significant - important factors to be considered in a year of mid-term Congressional elections. Added to this were sustained lobbying efforts by a number of groups, ranging from the Indian American community, the business communities of the two countries, fronted by their respective business alliances, and think tanks, especially those with a focus on South Asia. Though officially maintaining that getting the deal through Congress was an internal task to be undertaken by the US Administration, the Government of India, as an interested party, also made an effort to reach out to legislators, recognizing their position as a separate centre of power.

    Subsequently, the bill fell victim to its own success with a controversial legislation being tagged onto it, the intention being to ride piggyback on the more popular bill. (Incidentally, the same mechanism had initially been proposed to get the Nuclear Bill through Congress if it had struck too many roadblocks.) This plan backfired with a number of Senators putting a "hold" on the combined legislation, thus preventing it from reaching the floor of the House. By the time the combined efforts of the Indian American community and the business lobbies had succeeded to remove that particular hurdle, a paucity of time coupled with a crowded legislative calendar and pending legislation related to domestic (and electorally important) issues took centre stage, leaving the India bill out in the cold. Bills that were passed in the last days of the current Congress ranged from the defence spending bill to the homeland security spending bill to a bill authorising further fencing along US-Mexico border. President Bush himself had other priorities such as getting the bill allowing military commissions to prosecute terrorism suspects through Congress.

    Renewed attempts to expedite its passage at the very end of the session were stymied by the Democrats for a number of reasons. They were determined to deny the Republicans a foreign policy victory just before the elections, and given that they are widely expected to reduce the Republican majority in the Senate and to even gain a majority in the House, a re-look and possibly a refashioning of the Bill seems to be in their scheme of things. If this turn of events comes to pass, the Bill would be on slippery ground since the ideological underpinnings of the Democrats makes them more receptive to the exhortations of the non-proliferation lobby, evident from the voting on the Bill in the House where out of the 68 who voted against the Bill, 58 were Democrats.

    If the Bill is not passed in the current session and once again has to run the gauntlet of the Committees, Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns' prediction in March that getting the Bill through Congress would be akin to a 15 round (boxing) match might well turn out to be the understatement of the year, given the lack of room for manoeuvre for both the US Administration and the Indian government. The muted response on the part of the Indian government to the delay is an indication of the maturation of relations at a governmental level. But domestic competitive politics coupled with media hype has given a much higher profile to the deal in India than in the United States. If the deal were to fail to pass through in the lame duck session as well, it might still leave a manageable impact on bi-lateral relations. However, it would be a public relations disaster for the United States, in one of the few countries where public opinion sees US actions in the recent past in a favourable light. As the James Bond villain Auric Goldfinger famously said, "Once is happenstance, Twice is coincidence, The third time it's enemy action." The looming danger is that the public might skip from one to three.