Bottomline | Highs and Lows

What prompted PM Manmohan Singh to sign the India-US civil nuclear deal which he calls a high point of his career?

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

At his recent press conference meant to be a report card of his nine years in office, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh flagged the July 2005 India-US civil nuclear deal as the highpoint of his tenure by asserting that it ended India’s nuclear apartheid. We know that he had staked his personal prestige on it by threatening to resign on the issue.

What we did not know is that he was reluctant to sign this deal when in Washington to meet President George W. Bush as he feared that he would have difficulty in selling it back home. Two people, US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice and external affairs minister, Natwar Singh goaded and cajoled him to accept what the US viewed as a win-win deal. Rice has written this in her memoir, No Higher Honor.

What was about the deal that the Prime Minister instinctively knew would be unacceptable to India? It was fundamentally flawed with the US and India not being on the same page. For the US, the deal was about non-proliferation; on how to get India which had not signed the NPT under tighter control of the IAEA, the watchdog of the NPT. India, on the other hand sought to market it as a civil nuclear partnership meant to meet India’s growing energy needs. Given the incompatible objectives where both sides had difficulty in being honest, the critics of the deal had a field day. The US non-proliferation lobby argued that the deal would free India’s indigenous nuclear reactors to produce more fissile material for making nuclear weapons. Indian critics, on the other hand, said that the deal had got India to sign the CTBT from the back door. By signing the deal, India had sealed its option of further nuclear tests, and given up its right to nuclear weapons’ sovereignty.

To be sure, the deal is still not operationalised and is unlikely to reach its logical conclusion. It has certainly not helped the bilateral relations that it was meant to strengthen. Worse, China and Pakistan have extracted maximum advantage from the deal which the US had refused point-blank to offer to Islamabad. By exploiting the argument of the US critics, Pakistan enhanced production of its own fissile material, and set-up Plutonium reprocessing facilities to make compact nuclear warheads for use in its ballistic and cruise missiles. This is not all. Brushing aside muted objections from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) member-states, China decided to set-up three new nuclear reactors in Pakistan.

Why was the US keen on the deal and why did Prime Minister Manmohan Singh accept it? After India’s 1998 nuclear tests which led to an unprecedented interaction between the US Clinton administration and the Vajpayee government, both sides struggled to extract maximum advantage from the burgeoning relationship. The US wanted India to sign the CTBT and define its credible minimum nuclear deterrence to ensure that a nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan be nipped in the bud. India was desirous of across the board state-of-the-art US technology which included civil nuclear, civil high-tech, defence and dual-use technologies. After India’s peaceful nuclear explosion in 1974, the US Jimmy Carter administration in 1978 had imposed strict nuclear trade sanctions on India which it was unwilling to remove.

Given US’ non-proliferation leadership, the first Bush administration which succeeded the Clinton administration continued with intense parleys with the Vajpayee government on the subject. The result was the ‘Next Steps in Strategic Partnership’ where the two sides institutionalised discussions in three areas of civil space programme, civil nuclear activities, and high technology trade. Both sides also agreed to discuss ballistic missile defence. There were yet no formal talks on defence trade, which the US defence industry, given the shrinking global market, was keen to commence. Meanwhile, India’s requests to lift sanctions on its space and defence research organisations were met half-heartedly by the US.

However, in the second Bush administration with Rice as the US secretary of state, the bilateral relationship warmed dramatically. Rice, who had in 2000 written an out-of-the-box article in the prestigious US magazine Foreign Affairs arguing that the US and India should talk China, as it mattered to both, now wanted an intense relationship with India. She felt that if both countries could align their foreign policies in a tighter embrace of one another, it would become easy for the US to part with the desired technologies to India. So, on her maiden visit to India on 16 March 2005 as top US diplomat, Rice publicly said that the US would help India become a major power.

While the sudden announcement was welcomed by India, two problems cropped up. One, the foreign policy interests of the US as the global power and India as an aspiring regional power were too divergent to be aligned. And two, apprehensive of Chinese reaction to the India-US relationship, India decided to stick to the mantra of strategic autonomy with all friendly foreign powers. The rest as they say is history.


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