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When the US fiddles with the rules
T V R Shenoy
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August 27, 2008
When is a bronze medal at the Olympic Games the equivalent of a gold medal? The answer to that is: When the United States decides to fiddle with the traditional rules.

The Beijing [Images] Games mark the first time that China has been able to push the United States down to second spot in the ranking. It is not the first nation to achieve this feat -- Germany [Images] and the Soviet Union both managed it -- but this comes at an awkward time for the United States. China is hitting the heartland of world capitalism where it hurts most -- in the pocket -- which neither Hitler [Images] nor Stalin could ever dream of doing.

China's 51 gold medals put it well above the 36 that American athletes won. So, in defiance of the norm, Americans are now stating that the ranking should reflect all the medals won by a nation. By this norm, the United States' 110 medals puts it slightly ahead of China's even 100. Never mind if this means equating a bronze medal with a silver, and a silver with a gold. Carrying this absurdity to its full extent, I suppose this means that Michael Phelps [Images] actually won eight bronze medals in Beijing?

As I said, the Beijing Olympics [Images] gave Americans an uncomfortably public jolt, reminding them that they are no longer unquestioned masters of all that they survey. Russian soldiers swarmed into Georgia, an American ally whose current president is a graduate of an American college, even as the Games were on. The United States could do no more than sputter in protest.

Frankly, I could care less about Russia's [Images] quarrel with Georgia. (Though I must note that President Saakashvili of Georgia is not quite the innocent lamb he is made out to be by a sympathetic American media.) But it should be every Indian's concern when America's diminishing influence begins to affect India.

Two weeks ago, I thought even a lame-duck administration carried enough clout to push the Indian nuclear deal through the Nuclear Suppliers Group. That was clearly an erroneous assumption. The Nuclear Suppliers Group could not reach a conclusion after two days of debate, and has adjourned without specifying exactly when everyone shall reconvene.

India has no seat in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. (As a matter of fact, the group was funded in 1975 as a response to the first Pokharan tests, to ensure that India was deprived of both materials and technology.) Thus, it was entirely up to the Bush administration to make the running in Vienna [Images] -- and it was the belief that the United States could swing the deal which led the Manmohan Singh [Images] ministry to break with the Left Front.

The best that the embarrassed Indian prime minister and his colleagues can hope for is that the United States pushes the deal through before it is too late -- meaning in the next week or so -- and then gets the green signal from both chambers of the American Congress. Yet it is axiomatic that while one hopes for the best one must prepare for the worst.

The worst case scenario is that seven or eight of the smaller countries in the 45-strong Nuclear Suppliers Group continue to have reservations about a special status for India. Austria and New Zealand [Images], two of the countries that have expressed their worries, may not be terribly important in themselves but they could be the dominoes that push the rest over.

I refer specifically to Canada [Images] and Australia [Images], which, at least currently, are the two major producers of uranium. Both nations have strong non-proliferation lobbies (as do Austria and New Zealand).

India can buy technology from, say, France [Images] or Russia, but where is it to get uranium to be processed? Uranium is not like oil, which enjoys a free market. (The Nuclear Suppliers Group exists today specifically to prevent a free market!) It is in short enough supply that some old Soviet-era missiles are being stripped of their uranium for use in American power plants.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd came to power vowing that his government would not sell uranium to India unless it signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. He stepped back from this uncompromising stance after his party came to power, but the Rudd government still needs some cover from the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the United States Congress.

Canada, meanwhile, has historically been suspicious about India's nuclear weapons program. (For good reason, let us admit, since the first Pokharan test was conducted with Canadian-sourced uranium meant for peaceful purposes.) The Canadian ministers too need the fig leaf of a broad global consensus before it can sell any more uranium.

The bottomline is that the Manmohan Singh ministry committed a cardinal error in putting all its eggs in the American basket. It was so taken by Washington's blandishments that it forgot that there were 45 nations in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. A decade ago, the United States might have been able to push a deal through, but the America of ten years ago is not the America of today.

The precise objections raised at the two-day Nuclear Suppliers Group meeting have not been revealed, but I learn that broadly speaking they seek to impose the harshest possible interpretation of the Hyde Act -- and perhaps even beyond.

The Manmohan Singh ministry muddied the waters a month ago by seeking a trust vote rather than a free and frank debate on the nuclear deal.

In the process, it glossed over crucial issues -- like whether or not India will sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. All this was done in the belief that President Bush would manage everything.

The political consequences of all this remain in the realm of the unknown. Does the Manmohan Singh government have the guts to face one more session in the life of this Lok Sabha? Will it go to the polls without even the nuclear deal to show?

The prime minister and his colleagues thought the Bush administration's promises were as good as gold. But, as the Americans would now have you believe, gold is no better than bronze.

T V R Shenoy
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