MADRAS, India — The U.S. Congress has finally given its approval to a landmark law that allows the export of U.S. civilian nuclear fuel and technology to India for the first time in more than 30 years.

The Senate passed the deal by voice vote; the House of Representatives did so by an overwhelming 330-59 vote last Friday. The legislation is aimed at implementing a July agreement between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and U.S. President George W. Bush.

Although critics of the pact are unhappy that India has been given a virtually free rein on the nuclear issue, it is also a fact that the country has been freed from a bondage of sorts and can now hope to push ahead of Pakistan and establish strategic parity with China.

The U.S. Congress has corrected a long tilt it had had toward Pakistan vis-a-vis India. What’s more, Washington has decided that New Delhi and Beijing should enjoy nuclear equivalence.

Why has Pakistan become less important to the United States? One reason is that, with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein safely cast away and with Afghanistan now run by an administration that is practically an American puppet, al-Qaida may find it difficult to build or rebuild its nests in these two nations.

It will no longer be easy for Afghanistan to play host to terror. Thus Pakistan, which by virtue of geography, had become an ally of Washington in its fight against terror, has naturally lost much of its usefulness for American interests.

As far as China is concerned, most people in the U.S. are not comfortable with its growing power; they prefer India to China because of India’s strong democratic base and ideals. So, trying to cap India’s nuclear-weapons program at this stage could have been viewed as strengthening Beijing’s hand and giving it an edge in the Asian balance of power.

“By integrating India into the nonproliferation order at the cost of capping the size of its eventual nuclear deterrent,” Ashley Tellis argues in a recent monograph, “the U.S. would threaten to place New Delhi at a severe disadvantage vis-a-vis Beijing, a situation that could not only undermine Indian security but also U.S. interests in Asia in the face of the prospective rise of Chinese power.”

In short, American businessmen are keen on a grabbing a slice of the growing Indian middle-class cake.

Though American critics of the deal have consistently pointed out that selling nuclear equipment and technology to India will certainly encourage other nations to pursue nuclear development, others believe it is possible to build up India to clip China’s wings while upholding the nonproliferation regime.

Tellis, an adviser to Robert Blackwell when he was the U.S. Ambassador to India, feels that different countries should be treated differently “based on their friendship and value to the U.S.” Of course, India cannot be treated in the same way as North Korea. One is a respected democracy with a mature electorate; the other is not.

It is, therefore, not very surprising that, despite initial hiccups, the U.S. presidential pen and Congress have made India into something more than a “major non-Nato ally” of the U.S.

However, the Indian public fears hidden compromises in the deal, such as New Delhi’s being forced to serve American strategic interests in the region.

Tellis argues that the deal will buttress India’s potential utility as a hedge against a rising China, encourage it to pursue economic and strategic policies aligned with U.S. interests, and shape its choices with regard to global energy stability. This could run contrary to some of India’s more pressing needs.

How will New Delhi’s relationship with Iran and Myanmar, for example, shape up if India works in tandem with the U.S.? Both Iran and Myanmar have gas reserves that are vital to India’s energy concerns. The Iran gas pipeline project is already in jeopardy.

In addition, Washington may ask New Delhi to let its navy operate alongside U.S. Navy ships in Asian waters.

Indeed, there is much in the deal that the general Indian public has not been told. Singh would do well to make every detail of the deal transparent.

Equally imperative is that India keep working for global disarmament, check nuclear proliferation and refuse to play the American card in its ties with China. New Delhi has embarked on a long journey toward ending its misunderstandings and animosity with Beijing. Nothing should get in the way of this.

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