DELHI OPINION ASIA — As elections progress, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Congress party are in more trouble over the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal than they will readily acknowledge, with the distinct possibility of losing power.

If either the Communist Party of India’s Third Front or the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance form the government, there certainly exists the mild possibility that the nuclear deal will be renegotiated. And this could add to the already growing downturn in India’s relations with the Obama administration.

The Obama administration considers the nuclear deal another one of the toxic legacies of the Bush administration, in addition to the failed U.S. economy and the disastrous Iraq and Af-Pak wars. U.S. President Barack Obama tried but failed to introduce amendments to the nuclear deal as a senator, which was eventually passed by bipartisan consensus in the U.S. Congress.

Yet, as a Democratic Party president, Obama is committed to nonproliferation goals like the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT) and making the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) applicable to nuclear holdout powers like India, Pakistan and Israel.

Several of Obama’s senior officials are staunch opponents of the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal. India is already smarting at suggestions in Washington that U.S. nuclear fuel exports and reprocessing rights due to come in the second leg of negotiations will be linked to Indian acceptance of the CTBT and FMCT. It fears that this would open the way for the United States to find the ways and means to cap, roll back and eliminate India’s nuclear weapons program.

India’s May 1998 nuclear test was prompted by a fear of CTBT enforcement, which, to India’s relief, the U.S. Senate eventually rejected. In the 1998 test, however, the thermonuclear weapon did not explode or blast suboptimally. Since the mainstay of India’s deterrent is medium-to-long-range missiles tipped with thermonuclear warheads, this makes it imperative to conduct more tests. While the then Vajpayee government put a voluntary moratorium on further tests to lower the intensity of consequent U.S. sanctions, the nuclear deal, in effect, turns a de facto commitment into a de jure one, which was one of the principal reasons why the BJP, a section of the strategic community, and the Communist Party of India oppose the deal.

The deal also binds India to “assist” the U.S. to negotiate a universal FMCT, even though there is little evidence that India has accurately estimated its fissile material needs to counter existing Chinese and Pakistani threats, especially in view of new weaponizing alarms from Iran and a nuclear arms race among rival West Asian Sunni powers lead by Saudi Arabia.

The Indo-U.S. nuclear deal can, at best, meet 3 percent of India’s energy needs, which makes Singh’s compromises to the U.S. on India’s military nuclear program unacceptable. (Indeed, any compromise on India’s deterrent is unacceptable.) Why Singh made those compromises, thus forcing the CPI-M and other leftist parties to quit supporting his government last year, is still not clear. His excuse that a nuclear fuel shortage exists for India’s power reactors is bogus. Both government auditors and independent American studies say India has enough local uranium, blaming milling and mining bottlenecks on the Department of Atomic Energy bureaucracy.

Singh, however, is a pro-U.S. economist who opposed the May 1998 test and has no domestic political base to speak of. Congress party president Sonia Gandhi, who is Italian-born, nominated him prime minister in 2004 because she perceived him as the least threat to the dynastic succession of her son, Rahul Gandhi. In the quest for personal glory, failing all else, Singh made the nuclear deal a prestige issue for himself, forcing the Congress party and its other United Progressive Alliance allies to purchase and split opposition votes to survive the left- and BJP-sponsored parliamentary no-confidence motion in July last year. Up to the announcement of general elections, the government prevented the calling of a winter or late-winter Parliament session for fear of not being able to survive a second confidence vote.

While the BJP was earlier reconciled to the nuclear deal as a fait accompli (India has an enviable history of never reneging on an international treaty), it is now considering renegotiating because in view of the successful CPI-M-left campaign against the deal, that is what it thinks future coalition partners may want. If the CPI-M-led Third Front returns with a handsome victory, however, the U.S. may not be willing to renegotiate the nuclear deal and there is an outside chance of it being abandoned altogether.

Besides the nuclear deal, the left wants reassessment of the entire “strategic partnership” with the U.S. brought to fruition under the successive Vajpayee and Singh governments. The CPI-M general secretary, Prakash Karat, who is spearheading this anti-U.S. campaign, is particularly livid about the June 2005 “New Framework for the U.S.-India Defense Relationship” that controversially seeks India and the U.S. to “collaborate in multinational operations,” “expand collaboration relating to missile defense,” and “assist in building worldwide capacity to conduct successful peacekeeping operations,” among other things.

To be prime minister again, Singh is open to a second collaboration with the left, and at least openly, given the cooling of ties with the Obama administration, may not pursue strong strategic relations with the U.S. But Karat and other leftist leaders are implacably opposed to Singh and to placate them, Gandhi will have to replace him at least. This won’t be easy either for her or for them.

Meanwhile, other related issues, like the Af-Pak crisis, and end-use monitoring agreements covering American military sales to India, are dogging Indo-U.S. relations. A perception is growing across the Indian political spectrum that the U.S. cannot be India’s steady, reliable and understanding strategic partner. The general election is bringing that perception to a boil.

N.V. Subramanian is the editor of NEWSInsight (www.newsinsight.net), an Indian public affairs magazine. © 2006-2008 OpinionAsia (www.opinionasia.org)

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