India’s nuclear deal with the US might be saved. After weeks of bad news, with the Indian government failing to get its Communist-led parliamentary allies on side, the ground is at last shifting and it looks as if the Bharatiya Janata Party, India’s main opposition which has been objecting to the deal, might save the day.
It is of course too early to be sure, but I’d put money on a parliamentary debate quite soon where the Left gets isolated and there is a consensus – or maybe even a vote – in favor of going ahead. That would enable the deal to proceed via the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and meet the January deadline that the US is aiming for.
So what’s happened to lift the pall of gloom that was falling last week over the deal and over India-US relations? Basically, US diplomats in Delhi – plus former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger who is visiting the city – have been calling in favors from old contacts in the BJP who they have been nurturing for years. The US has always felt more comfortable with the right-wing Hindu-nationalist BJP than with the Congress Party, which leads the current government. The BJP, which started defense and nuclear talks with the US when it was in power from 1998-2004, has traditionally been seen as more pro-business than Congress, which comes from a Socialist background and built India’s Cold War alliance with the former Soviet Union.
The US has also seen the BJP, with its base among India’s majority Hindu population, as a bulwark against Islam. So for years American diplomats have been courting young aspiring BJP politicians, as well as their leaders. Now, as I said, is the time to call in favors – and the calls are beginning to yield results.
BJP leaders have begun to say that they are prepared to back the deal if they receive certain assurances about the security of India’s nuclear weapons. There is no way, for example, that they would give support if the deal might upset progress made since the former BJP-led government staged India’s historic nuclear tests in 1998. The BJP also wants to be assured that India’s sovereignty and autonomy in foreign and defense policy will not be compromised – though that might be difficult because the US is trying to persuade India to abandon a possible gas pipeline project with its old ally, Iran.
Rajnath Singh, BJP president, set the line yesterday when he said the BJP is ready to have talks with the government, and a parliamentary debate, on the deal. David Mulford, the US ambassador to India, who saw L.K. Advani, the BJP’s veteran leader a few days ago, meets Singh this afternoon. Another senior BJP leader who I spoke to this morning took the same line. And a senior Communist Party official, speaking on television last night, almost invited defeat when he said parliament should have a debate and “let’s take a consensus of the House”.
Hank Paulson, US Treasury secretary, who is visiting India and speaks at the Fortune Global Forum tomorrow, yesterday urged India to “move forward as quickly as possible, though, he acknowledged, “you all have to work through your internal political decision – that is up to India.”
So the deal, which would lift a 30-year ban on India’s access to nuclear power and other sensitive technologies, could be saved – and, with it, the current Indian government and prime ministership of Manmohan Singh – ironically not by the government and its allies but by the BJP.