What is six months in the life of an ancient nation? This will remain a tantalising question that the United Progressive Alliance government refuses to answer regarding the raison d'etre of the India-United States civil nuclear cooperation agreement.
Amidst the cacophony over the deal, the Left has made a modest suggestion. Why don't we pause, take a six-month sabbatical and revisit the deal in a chastened mood? A wide body of public opinion harbours a sense of disquiet over the deal. But the government sidetracks the issue.
It resorts to banalities like 'This is the best deal that we can get', or, 'George Bush is the friendliest US President'. Like bloodhounds, the UPA's spin doctors pounce upon the critics of the deal, ridiculing them as 'anti-American' or 'Chinese agents', 'anti-national', 'Rip Van Winkles', and so on. Jawaharlal Nehru must be turning in his grave.
Meanwhile, it is left to the American Ambassador to India, David Mulford to crack the whip. 'Time is of the essence,' he announced in Delhi on Tuesday. 'Now we must take the last steps. This involves completing the International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards and securing the Nuclear Suppliers Group rule change. Finally US Congress must vote once more on the 123 agreement, an agreement best accomplished by this administration in the life of this Congress.'
It is inconceivable Mulford meant what he said, namely, that certainty of an enduring commitment to the deal is lacking among US politicians. American diplomats used to say 'strategic partnership' with India enjoys bipartisan consensus in the US. Indeed, Congress passed the notorious Hyde Act with a thumping majority.
So, where is the doublespeak? Clearly, the Bush administration is in a tearing hurry. The deal's sequencing has been altered. Instead of waiting for the IAEA negotiations to conclude, Washington sought an extraordinary meeting of the NSG.
Evidently, extraneous factors have come into play. First, the deal facilitates selective handling of the question of technology transfer to India. The deal and its political message enhance the prospects of gaining waivers on existing US embargos. Such waivers, in turn, are a pre-requisite for effective participation by the US in the tender floated by India for fighter aircraft.
The tender worth anywhere up to $16 billion (about Rs 64,000 crore) will be in three stages. First, a technical commission of the UPA government will examine the compliance of the bidders' proposals with the operational requirements of the Indian Air Force. Then, the bidding planes will undergo real-time tests. And, finally, commercial terms will be evaluated. Thus, participants must make their presentations within the next six months if they are to be eligible for consideration.
As of now, American companies participating in the tender -- Boeing with its F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Lockheed Martin with the F-16 -- have to make their bids within prevailing US laws embargoing military technology transfer to India. (The Indian tender covers not only the delivery of aircraft but also their licensed co-production and much else that involves the transfer of state-of-the-art military technology.)
The fighter aircraft selected through the tender are expected to have a service life of 40 years. If the US doesn't secure the deal, forget about the so-called 'inter-operability' of the two armed forces. In the downstream, lack of 'inter-operability' will impede India joining the US-led national missile defence concept. India's participation in NMD (along with Japan and Australia in the Asian continent) is vitally important for the US geo-strategy of 'containment' of China (and Russia). The NMD is of fundamental importance to establishing US nuclear dominance over Russia and China.
But Mulford is right in a certain sense. There is a tactical consideration, too. The Bush administration is gearing up for a military attack on Iran. The military equipment required for a sea and air strike are already in the Persian Gulf aboard three aircraft-carrier battle groups. An attack on Iran would come anytime after the current IAEA work in Iran ends in December and the advent of desert summer.
The US administration and the UPA government will face an acute predicament unless the nuclear deal is got out of the way by January 2008. Washington's campaign on Iran's alleged nuclear programme would suffer if the nuclear deal is left hanging. The US's 'double standard' would become the stuff of ridicule.
Equally, for the UPA government, especially for Congress party, there is bound to be sensitivity in identifying with a US administration that is about to go on yet another 'crusade' against a Muslim country. For completely different reasons, therefore, the Manmohan Singh government and Bush administration have unspeakable concerns in ensuring that somehow the nuclear deal is wrapped up before the dogs of war are let loose in the Middle East.
M K Bhadrakumar is a former ambassador