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Nuclear deal engaged Diaspora like never before

July 17, 2015 20:25 IST

July 18 marks the completion of a decade since the landmark Indo-US civilian nuclear deal was struck.

Aziz Haniffa/ reports on the role the Indian-American community played in pushing the legislation through the United States Congress.

The deal was a "touchstone for the involvement of the Indian-American community in the world of American foreign policy," said Philip Zelikow, who served on the national security staff in the White House and as a senior counsellor to President George W Bush, and was part of the team that developed the concept of a civilian nuclear agreement with India.

Acknowledging the indispensable role the Indian-American community had played in ultimately pushing it through the US Senate and the House, Zelikow said the community's intense lobbying pushing the legislation through Congress was unprecedented "in a way that this particular Diaspora had never been engaged before."

Zelikow, who provided the National Security Council perspective vis-a-vis the negotiations at the Carnegie conference on the 10th anniversary of the India-US Civil Nuclear Cooperation Initiative, argued, "You can see now the significance of this Diaspora in a variety of ways, more and more conscious of their significance in American society more generally."

"This deal was one of the catalysts for energising and rallying that community and basically telling people in Washington, including Senator (Hillary) Clinton that there were people outside Washington prepared," to fight for this deal.

Zelikow, an erstwhile career diplomat, is now a professor of history at the University of Virginia and a member of President Obama's Intelligence Advisory Board. He recalled when the concept of his agreement was being developed there were "people who were uneasy about this deal in the Executive branch."

"And this group of people who were not so much all out against the deal, but uneasy, were led by (then National Security Adviser) Steve Hadley, who was listening to and had some empathy with non-proliferation concerns, which frankly were not trivial concerns."

"Frankly," Zelikow argued, "if the arguments had no merits and were trivial, then this wasn't hard. Really hard decisions are actually where there are good arguments. So, the argument then was why don't we make the announcement in July and then we'll make a decision as to whether to go forward with this in another meeting we'll have end 2005."

But he remembered "coming down on this as hard as I could because I thought this was a poison pill -- that I believed that if we basically said that we believed that we were thinking about this, but we haven't made our decision yet, then all the forces (concerned with non-proliferation, considering India was not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty), they would kill it."

Zelikow recalled how "we were criticised as to why we didn't bring Congress in, Why didn't you consult with Congress to avoid some of this opposition before July?"

"I am not saying this is the right procedure to follow in all cases," he acknowledged, "but in this particular case we felt we had to do this as a coup-de-main -- where you basically present people with a fait accompli and then have the political fight."

"If we put it out there, essentially as a trial balloon to see how people react," Zelikow reiterated, "Washington would have killed it."

"So, then, by presenting with a fait accompli, the great burden we then had that (then US Undersecretary of State and the pointman for the deal, R Nicholas) Nick (Burns) had to shoulder it to build a political coalition and the political coalition had to have multiple parts, including a high-road argument on the merits, made persistently by Nick and others and Ashley (Tellis) and others."

"The second ingredient of actually rallying frankly, the energy coalition and the green coalition, who would see it as an important issue on the international scale, but frankly, rallying the Indian-American community for the first time," Zelikow added.

Shyam Saran, former foreign secretary, who was the ministry of external affairs's key negotiator with Burns, spoke of India's scepticism and the difficulty in trying to sell this deal in India.

"The difficulty arose because in the United States, to try and sell this initiative, the US had to argue that this was going to strengthen the non-proliferation regime -- that this was something that would not undermine non-proliferation objectives on the US side."

"For India," Saran recalled, "it was very different -- it was to convince our people that we were doing nothing that would erode our strategic (nuclear) programme. So, it was a different perspective from which we were coming."

"We were all the time arguing that we are not doing anything, which will remotely impact on our strategic programme, while the US was saying, 'Hey, we are not doing anything that will remotely impact on our non-proliferation objectives'."

Thus, Saran noted, "The way in which we were addressing our audiences and the way in which the United States was addressing its audiences, there was always a disconnect, and overcoming that was not easy -- it was a big challenge. There was a fundamental asymmetry in terms of how we were approaching this initiative."

Indian government officials lobbying Congress for support for the deal "was something new for India", Saran added.

"In the past, we never had a situation where actually diplomats, the foreign secretary, were making the rounds on Capitol Hill, meeting Senators and Congressmen, and trying to convince them as to why they should support the deal."

"It was a learning process for us," Saran said, "but it was also very important for us to understand the dynamics of how the US works."

He recalled his first meeting with US Congressman Henry Hyde, the Illinois Republican and then chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who told Saran that he was meeting with him out of courtesy and that the concept of such a deal with India had no chance of seeing the light of the day, including carrying the Democrats on the Committee who were committed non-proliferationists.

Hyde, Saran remembered, had told him, 'No, I am chairman, it is very difficult for me to take a any position on this, so please understand that I cannot really be seen as supporting this and by the way, my staffers have told me that this is going to be very difficult.'

"He allowed me to make by spiel and then he nodded and said, 'OK, we'll see what we can do'."

Saran, speaking of the "distance we have traveled," added, "Fast forward to the date when the legislation was passed with his name on it -- The Henry Hyde Act. I went to meet him and this was just a couple of months before he died, unfortunately. I went to thank him for his support and for the fact that Congress had voted quite significantly by a bipartisan consensus for the Act."

"And you know what he told me? He said, 'You know, this is one of the proudest moments in my life that this particular act for India-US partnership carries my name'."

"So you can see the distance that we traveled in about two years -- from somebody who was completely sceptical and not willing to have much to do with this, to somebody who was actually very proud to be associated with this legislation," Saran said.

"And that is a great learning that through conversations, through constant, constant dialogue, we were actually together, able to turn the perception around -- turn them around enough to be able to get that critical mass of support for this legislation."

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC