In an uncharacteristically convoluted manner, former US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott told a news channel that the National Democratic Alliance government was ready to settle for much less than what had been offered by the Bush Administration to the United Progressive Alliance government in the form of a nuclear deal.
'I think that what the Clinton Administration has been prepared to offer the BJP-led Government that we were dealing with, the deal that President Bush was willing to make with Manmohan Singh and company, the Indian side would have gone for it,' he said.
The statement is hypothetical as the Clinton Administration did not offer any such deal, but the public record would corroborate Talbott's claim in substance. Talbott's Engaging India and Jaswant Singh's A Call to Honour differ on the details as to what each tried to achieve in their marathon talks, but both agree that the "village" they sought to find was not a comprehensive agreement, but an understanding on each other's concerns, arising out of India's tests. But if they had the opportunity to build a house once they reached the village, they would have gone for it.
Talks with the United States became imperative when the Clinton Administration imposed the Glenn Amendment sanctions over and above the technology denial regime that had already existed. Though Jaswant Singh never conceded that his immediate objective was to return to the pre-May 1998 situation, Talbott made no secret of the conditions or "benchmarks" India had to reach to set it free from the new sanctions.
The Glenn Amendment was entirely uncharted waters and the way it operated sent shockwaves across India. Apart from trade and financial restrictions, the so-called people sanctions threatened to undermine even the visa system. Several Indian scientists had to leave and others, like Dr R Chidambaram, were denied even visitor's visa. American officials decided to err on the side of overdoing the sanctions regime. There was a palpable sense of emergency in the air in Washington, when anxious Indian Americans lost sleep over their visa status. The Jaswant Singh-Talbott talks were, therefore, seen in India and the US as a modality for getting the Glenn Amendment sanctions lifted.
Talbott's benchmarks were clearly spelt out publicly. They consisted of India's signature on the CTBT, India's agreement to negotiate a permanent ban on the production of fissile material and, in the interim, a freeze on further production, a strategic restraint regime, a stricter export control regime and improvement in India-Pakistan relations. The US expected that these reasonable benchmarks would be accepted in return for the reward in the form of sanctions relief and a Presidential visit.
But India, without rejecting any of the conditions outright, kept developing theories on each of them, as though we were willing to do some of them as part of our own scheme of things at our own pace. We were tantalisingly close to making our de facto commitment not to test into a de jure undertaking, we had no problem with entering negotiations on an FMCT, we had an open mind on export control and we were more than willing to normalise relations with Pakistan. It was only on the question of strategic restraint that there was no meeting point.
No nuclear deal like the kind President Bush offered to India was on the table, but India's anxiety to build new bridges with the United States and the new confidence that India had demonstrated in the talks should lead to the logical conclusion that India would have moved to a nuclear deal if such a deal was on offer. But the fact is that the two sides had a more limited objective of returning to the pre-May 1998 position.
Talbott's contention is also based on the efforts made by the UPA government to move further on the nuclear front with the Bush Administration. Jaswant Singh states that the document signed in January 2004, the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership, had been planned during his time as foreign minister. It was under the aegis of NSSP that the two countries began talking about the sale of civilian nuclear technology, joint space exploration, missile defence and high technology trade. Jaswant Singh has expressed satisfaction that it was on the foundations laid by him that the nuclear deal was constructed by the Bush Administration and the UPA government.
It is also well known that it was the NDA government that had first mooted the idea of additional nuclear installations being subjected to International Atomic Energy Agency inspection in return for civilian nuclear co-operation. On the basis of this, it was logical for Talbott to assume that the NDA government would have accepted the present deal or even something less. He had read the minds of his interlocutors correctly.
It was not Jaswant Singh, but Yashwant Sinha who reacted to Talbott. Without the burden of history on him, he said in a straightforward fashion that 'we had no discussion on the current lines of the current nuclear deal or the 123 Agreement' with the Clinton Administration. This was absolutely correct. He was also correct in asserting that 'there was no draft of the kind like the 123 Agreement of the present government'. But when he went on to say that 'in our time, as all the evidence will show, we were discussing peripheral issues like safety of nuclear plants etc', he was way off the mark. How could Jaswant Singh claim that he planted the seed for today's tree if only peripheral issues were under consideration?
Indeed, both Talbott and Sinha are right in their own ways. They represent two former governments, who aspired to reach an agreement on nuclear issues, but could not make it on account of force of circumstances. But it is hard for politicians to rise above politics. It takes statesmen to see beyond political expediency and accept what is in the best interests of their country.
T P Sreenivasan, a former member of the Indian Foreign Service, was India's ambassador to the United Nations, Vienna, and governor for India, International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna