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Without a nuclear deal, there will be nothing spectacular about the visit
February 27, 2006
Twenty-eight years have spanned the three visits to India by three US Presidents since the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty came into force -- Jimmy Carter in 1978, Bill Clinton in 2000 and George Bush in 2006. But the quest has always been for a magic formula to bring India into the non-proliferation regime. Every US President responds to what he sees as helpful signals from India as India is the only country which is fundamentally opposed to the NPT.
In India, different governments have weighed options, made tentative moves, but stopped short of taking the plunge. Carter's irritation came out in the open, but Clinton put up a brave face. Bush, who has come closest to a deal, appears likely to pursue his quest beyond his visit.
Carter misread Morarji Desai completely when the latter spoke irreverentially about the established position of his predecessors on nuclear policy and signaled that he did not care about the nuclear option and changed India's vote on some crucial questions of disarmament in the United Nations. The US calculation was that since Morarji was ready to foreswear nuclear weapons, he might also be willing to legitimise the NPT in some way.
India responded positively to a suggestion to set up a scientific group to study the implications of Indian acceptance of the NPT, which convinced Carter that he would be able to clinch an agreement if he came to Delhi. But by the time he came for a day, Morarji had become wiser about public opinion and changed his mind.
Carter was so shocked by what he heard from Morarji that he told his National Security Adviser that a 'cold and blunt letter' should be written to him. The comment was caught on camera and the visit became a fiasco.
Clinton, whose scheduled visit in 1998 was torpedoed by the Indian nuclear tests, worked hard to normalise relations by prescribing five benchmarks, which, in the American perception, were not difficult for India to accept. India should sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, help ban the production of fissile material, and in the interim, agree to a voluntary freeze, accept a strategic restraint regime, strengthen export controls and resume dialogue with Pakistan. Even though the negotiators, Strobe Talbott and Jaswant Singh did not come to agreement on any of these issues, Clinton came to India to stress these points and to enhance cooperation in other areas.
Unlike Carter, Clinton had a certain fascination for India and he did not hold the success of his visit contingent upon an understanding on nuclear issues. But it was Clinton, who laid the foundation for a nuclear deal.
Bush went further than all his predecessors to bring India into the nuclear mainstream and to promise full civilian nuclear cooperation to India. But his visit has also been plagued by the same issue. If Bush comes to India after sending the July 18 agreement to the United States Congress, he will receive a hero's welcome in Delhi. But the non-proliferationists in the US and public opinion, including that of the scientific community in India seem to have denied him that joy.
Like Clinton, he has to resort to finding other areas of cooperation to offset the losses on the nuclear front. He has begun to harp on terrorism, trade, defence cooperation and promotion of democracy. There may be movements in these areas when Bush is here, but without a nuclear deal, there will be nothing spectacular about the visit.
Interestingly, some progress on the nuclear issue is achieved with every Presidential visit. Carter wanted India's signature on the NPT, while Clinton wanted India to abandon its abhorrence of the CTBT. Bush wants neither and is quite happy to leave the military programme alone.
The separation issue got complicated because what is now a prerogative of the Nuclear Weapon States is being denied to India. Moreover, the primacy of the fast breeder reactor has assumed importance in the deal. But the progress so far is worth preserving so that either Bush or his successor will have something to work on. The progress from Carter to Bush cannot go unnoticed.
The most spectacular way for Bush to save the visit is to announce in New Delhi that he will support India's candidature to permanent membership in the UN Security Council. This is not as difficult as it looks as support to India is within the scheme of things of the United States and there is no immediate possibility of a consensus on expansion.
Just as the US supports the candidature of Japan, it can support India also without any fear of the expansion taking place in the next few years. But it will make a qualitative change in the relationship and make the Bush visit different from the previous visits in quest for the nuclear grail.