The nuclear understanding reached between India and the United States is easily the biggest foreign policy challenge facing New Delhi for four reasons: One, as the powerful partner, the US is known to shift goalposts, and create new extraneous conditions. Two, the track record of the Indian leadership, the Congress as well as the BJP governments, in relations with the US is hardly level-handed. There are numerous instances in the past when the Indian leadership has been found bending over backward to please the US. Three, because the agreement is excellent for the US, President Bush is expected to take personal interest to see it through various domestic and international hurdles. This in turn will put pressure on India to expedite its commitments. And four, there is a fundamental dissonance on what the nuclear agreement is all about. According to the US, it will further US and global non-proliferation objectives. India, on the other hand, wants its people to believe that the agreement is about civilian nuclear energy. Therefore, the real devil is not in what has been said by the two sides, or in the details of what has been agreed, but in what has deliberately been underplayed by India. For example, according to the top US negotiator, under secretary of state for political affairs, Nicholas Burns, “The agreement is a major, major gain for the non-proliferation regime.
While the US and other countries have not recognised India’s strategic programme, the agreement would bring India into the non-proliferation mainstream.” Burns’ deputy, Ashley J. Tellis has gone further. He has argued that the US should have ‘enhanced cooperation in civilian nuclear technology, given India’s importance for the success of US non-proliferation goals and other vital geopolitical objectives.’
It is obvious that in the coming weeks and months, the Bush administration will take its case forcefully to the US Congress for legitimising the bilateral agreement on twin grounds of non-proliferation, and furthering the US geopolitical objectives. While it will be an uphill task, it does not appear impossible. Cutting across the US political divide, only the pigheaded Democrat and Republican lawmakers will fail to see the merit of the Bush case. Once the US Congress gives its approval, most Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG) members would not be unhappy to endorse the same. Considering that the 45-member NSG works on the consensus principle, it will not be difficult to ignore countries that oppose the agreement, including China that became a member of the NSG only in 2005. Reacting to the agreement, China has said that India should join the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state, a position that helps its ally, Pakistan. India’s negotiations, however, with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for an India-specific fuel supply agreement and the Additional Protocol will be difficult, but not insurmountable. In short, from the US perspective, the agreed nuclear separation plan that follows from the 18 July 2005 agreement is nothing short of an accomplishment for President George W. Bush, probably the only one thus far in his presidency. Before going any further, there is the need to understand two basic issues: what is the agreement, and how did it come about?