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'If N-deal fails, it will have long-term impact'
Suman Guha Mozumder in New York
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December 18, 2007

Marshall Bouton, president of The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and an expert of South Asia, especially India-US relations, says that while bilateral relations between India and the United States will not collapse totally, it will certainly cause significant damage in the ties if the US-India Civilian Nuclear Cooperation Agreement does not materialise.

Bouton, who joined the Council in August 2001 after serving 20 years at the Asia Society in New York, including as executive vice president and chief operating officer, spoke to rediff India Abroad's Senior Editor Suman Guha Mozumder in New York recently..

Before and after the US-India Civilian Nuclear Cooperation Agreement was signed Indian and American officials have been saying that Indo-US relations mean more than just this particular deal. If that is true, why is there so much concern that the deal might not happen?

Well, of course there are other dimensions to the relationship. The nuclear agreement is a huge breakthrough in the relationship. It is an issue that has been something between an irritant and a cause of real hostility between the two countries for 30 years. And that is why the nuclear agreement is so important, That is why so many people put so much effort negotiating it. That is the reason why the US took the very unusual step of exempting a single country from a piece of legislation and international agreements. That is why India undertook to do this despite the resistance of some of its scientists... So, the idea that somehow this thing fails after three years of very great direct efforts and many more years of worrying over how we adjust to each other's expectations on nuclear matters � just flies in the face of common sense.

So you mean...

I am not saying the relationship will crash and burn, but I am saying that there will be significant damage in the US and certainly in political circles in Washington. Not just in the Bush administration but among Democrats and Republicans and in Congress and in the wider circle.

Bush administration officials, including R Nicholas Burns, the under secretary of state, seem to hold on to the hope that something will work out very soon. They don't accept that the deal is dead. From your perspective what is the future? Do you believe that the deal will come through?

I think there still is a possibility that the deal will be completed. You know, from an objective standpoint, neither side has said that they are walking away from this. The US has said that 'we are ready but we have some limitations in terms of our politics.'

It is already stretching that time frame into the first quarter of a Presidential election year. On India's side, the prime minister (Dr Manmohan Singh [Images]) has said that if both are coalition partners and others in Parliament continue to oppose the deal the way they have, then it is going to be very hard for us to move ahead.' Neither of those things amount to a sort of washing hands off it.

But it is certainly much more negative than anybody anticipated and I do not know anybody on the US side that was involved in the deal � who was not incredibly surprised by the prime minister's recent announcement. In fact, I had a meeting a couple of months back with Indians and Americans where among the Indians I spoke with, [I was told] that if the Communists and partners in the coalition decide and oppose the deal, the deal will still go ahead even if the government falls.

That has turned not to be the case. Having said all that, there is clearly still room to maneuver for a compromise, [though] not for renegotiation of the agreement -- which is totally unthinkable but [there is] certainly [hope if] the Indian side [finds] politically some resolution. I have not given up hope by any means. Far too much has been invested in this by both sides to conclude that.

One perhaps understands the opposition from the Communist parties but aren't you surprised by the opposition from the Bharatiya Janata Party, given that the BJP first initiated dialogue with the US government?

On a political level it is not too surprising. It is pure politics (laughs). It is an opportunity for the BJP to embarrass -- or seek to embarrass -- the government. So, in true political terms no [I am not surprised]. In terms of the substance, yes [I am surprised]. I would still expect that at some point, if the differences with the Communists who do have ideological concerns are somehow resolved, I would be surprised if the BJP does not come along for the very reasons that you said -- that they themselves almost certainly would have done this deal if they had been in power.

You said you are hopeful about the conclusion of this deal. If this deal does not go through, what kind of impact would it have on bilateral relations?

As I said it will have a negative impact. And I think it is going to be a substantial negative impact, certainly at the governmental and official level. The Bush administration will be deeply embarrassed and it is not going to make any effort in its [remaining] time in office to pay attention to the relationship. Then, you have to think of the new administration, whether Republican or Democratic. I think the new administration will feel very wary [about] trying to revive the relationship or to upgrade it. I think the deal -- certainly under a Democratic administration -- seems unlikely. I think efforts will be made on both sides to limit the damage but I think there will be damage. I think there will be somewhat lasting damage. It is not going to go away in six months -- [or] years. I think it will take some time to go beyond this.

When you said lasting damage, does it mean that the Indo-US relationship will go back to the Cold War era when it was marked by mutual distrust and doubts?

It is hard to say. It depends on what the circumstances are around the failure of the deal. I doubt the clock will be turned back. You do not have to turn it back as far back as the 1990s. You have to turn it back to 1998. I doubt that because too much else has happened and we have a much deeper economic relationship between the two countries, which is not going to disappear. I think the real damage would be at the political and official levels. I think there would be a real backward movement in terms of cooperation between the two governments. I think there will be a spillover to some extent in other areas of the relationship. But, overall, I do not think that it will go back as far as 1989 or 1991.

You are going to China. There have been reports in the Indian media that the Indian Communists are opposing the deal because of pressure from the Chinese government, which does not want to see this cooperation. How much substance is there in the reports and to claims that the US is trying to contain China in Asia by doing this deal with India?

No (laughs). I think that the [idea that] the Communist parties in India are acting at the behest of Beijing [Images] on this issue -- or � any other matter -- is a misbegotten idea. I do not think this about the US-China relationship or the US-China-India triangle or India [and the] US somehow countering China. I think this is all about the US-India relationship and [about] putting [behind] 35 years of the difficult history between us on the nuclear issue into closing the chapter, that unhappy chapter of the India-US book [when relations between the two countries were strained]. I think a critical requirement, if this relationship is to realise its full potential over time, [is not to] have to see it in terms of geopolitics. That is important.

What is your take on the situation in Pakistan and the United States' position regarding it?

I think the situation in Pakistan is quite difficult. I do not know what normalcy [is]. But in my mind it is not going to [return] in the foreseeable future. Something more stable and inclusive in Pakistan's politics is going to be very hard to put together. We do not even know what is going to happen in the present scenario -- whether opposition to [Pakistan President Pervez] Musharraf's actions will somehow be suppressed.

It all just looks very unstable to me. I do not think any of us know how it is going to unfold, but it is a very troubling situation.

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