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The Imperative of Finalising the Nuclear Deal by 2008

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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  • August 03, 2007

    Even though the Indo-US nuclear deal has passed one more hurdle with the completion of the 123 Agreement to the satisfaction of both governments, the remaining hurdles include the signing of agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) before the Agreement can go back to the US Congress for its final imprimatur. As has been implicitly acknowledged by the two parties to the Agreement, both in their haste and their willingness to find innovative solutions to work around the complex technicalities, this Nuclear Deal, conceived during the Second Presidency of George W. Bush, can be signed, sealed and delivered in its present form only in the current Presidency. A varied set of factors, ranging from President Bush's unorthodox style of functioning, his disinclination towards a graduated approach, his disregard for the nitty-gritty and the Administration's calculation that opposition from the Non-Proliferation Lobby would be balanced out by support from the business lobby and sections of the intelligentsia and the strategic community, were in varying degrees responsible for getting the Deal off the ground on the American side. The requirement of a team that was in line with the President's vision of Indo-US Relations is underscored by the fact that the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) had sputtered along without any clear end goals during the period of Rice's predecessor at the State Department.

    Having come this far over a two year period, it is imperative that the Deal is concluded in the remaining seventeen odd months of this Presidency. Current polls show that Democrats are tipped to take over the Presidency in 2009, barring unforeseen events. A new Administration would take time to settle down and would have its attention focused on resolving the mess in Iraq in particular and West Asia in general. A Democrat Administration would also have a substantially different perspective on not just the Nuclear Deal but the on strategic scenario as well.

    Though the nuclear deal has not figured as an issue in the campaign for the Democratic nomination, other issues related to South Asia have cropped up from time to time, particularly between the two current frontrunners for the Democratic Party nomination, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. This could conceivably colour the approach of whoever ultimately wins the presidency. The Obama camp has accused the Hillary camp of being too close to her Indian American supporters, while at the same time paying lip service to the contentious issue of outsourcing, a theme later taken up by the Los Angeles Times. While Obama had to apologise for a background sheet issued by his supporters dubbing Clinton as the Senator from Punjab, the Clinton camp has been using Obama's recent utterances on carrying out targeted strikes on terrorist camps in Pakistan as an example of his inexperience in foreign policy.

    With outsourcing of jobs to India still a contentious issue, particularly among the middle- class who form the mainstay of the Democratic Party (as evidenced by numerous blog posts on the subject), Clinton would be much more susceptible to accusations of being soft on India and would necessarily have to take a tougher stand on issues such as the nuclear deal. At the same time, she is likely to seek something more substantial by way of quid pro quo than a general belief that India and the United States were natural allies. Similarly, while Obama is an unknown quantity, being a freshman Senator, his utterances on the nuclear deal wherein he expressed concern that the mechanism set in place through the Deal was flawed and that there had not been "as systematic an approach as I would like to see" could give some pointers to the approach to the Deal in an Obama White House. Given that there are any number of contentious issues ranging from trade negotiations to climate change protocols on which the Democrats can be expected to take a tougher stand than the incumbent Administration, it is doubtful that any Democrat Administration would go beyond the relationship style that was the hallmark of the Bill Clinton Administration - high on style and symbolism, but low on substance. Thus, beginning the relationship with a new Administration on a clean slate should be the preferred choice for India.