New Delhi: With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh making a seminal visit to the US next week, nuclear cooperation is turning out to be the litmus test of a rapidly evolving relationship, at least from the Indian viewpoint.
As nuclear cooperation has been the thorniest issue between the two long-time estranged democracies since India's nuclear test in 1974, both countries should take immediate steps to end the nuclear imbroglio. Such cooperation could take bilateral ties to a new era of sustained relationship for their benefit.
In January 2004, under a framework called Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP), signed in 2001, the US started dialogues with India to forge non-military nuclear cooperation which, along with ties in civilian space programmes and high-technology trade, forms three key areas of parleys.
However, the ongoing dialogues on nuclear cooperation have not moved forward to produce concrete results.
Recently, speaking to editors and analysts, US Ambassador to India David Mulford affirmed that President George W. Bush's offer to help New Delhi develop the nuclear energy option is a "serious one" and that the US is "now moving in a different direction".
It is high time for the US to make concrete steps to substantiate US statements on nuclear cooperation because it is the only way to add meaning to NSSP for the strategic advantages of both countries.
The US hesitation to sign a nuclear agreement with India could be owing to its perception that New Delhi would be the maximum gainer, not Washington. This is not true. Bilateral civil nuclear cooperation would certainly benefit the US too in the long run.
Firstly, forging nuclear cooperation could encourage India to actively help the US in its non-proliferation efforts.
India has already exhibited its clean track record and showed it is a responsible nuclear power: New Delhi's nuclear technology is primarily used for civil use; it has good track record on strict nuclear export controls and has institutionalised the nuclear export control with the passing of "The Weapons of Mass Destruction and Their Delivery Systems (Prohibition of Unlawful Activities) Bill, 2005"; and unlike some other countries India's nuclear arsenal has not led to any aggressive posture or militarism. Even the need for nuclear weapons is warranted by the compulsion of changed regional and international security environment.
Also, aligning with India, a country wedded to nuclear morality, could provide the US moral authority to project itself as the champion of nuclear non-proliferation.
Secondly, a fruitful outcome vis-à-vis civil nuclear cooperation could successfully pave way for India to join the Proliferation Security Initiative of the Bush Administration (PSI) in the US counter-proliferation efforts. India can prove to be a worthy and reliable partner in this regard.
Already, a number of countries have allied with the US for counter-proliferation and carrying out interdictions in land, air and sea routes. India is one of the most resourceful countries that can offer support and expertise to help to the interdiction efforts in South Asia and Indian Ocean region, promoting counter-proliferation goals.
Thirdly, cooperation with India will help increase her ability to play a stabilising force in Asia and the international arena in US interest.
The US has stated that it will help India play a major role in the regional and international affairs. If that is so, the US has to end restrictions on nuclear and high technology cooperation since they seriously limit India's ability to become a stabilising force in Asia and to play an effective role in international affairs, as Indian Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee said recently.
Fourthly, a civil nuclear cooperation between the US and India will facilitate them to become major allies so as to promote democracy in the region and beyond.
Fifthly, if the US abandons its hidden agenda to scuttle India's gas pipeline project with Iran through Pakistan and seriously forges nuclear cooperation, it would help sustain peace between New Delhi and Islamabad.
A positive US outlook will also help alleviate concerns of American critics that Washington secretly uses the prospect of nuclear cooperation merely to scuttle the Iran-Pakistan-India gas project in its bid to isolate Tehran and pursue militarism there.
Lastly, such nuclear cooperation and nuclear trade with India would provide huge financial benefits to the US.
For clinching a nuclear accord with the US, India, on its part, could give out assurances on non-proliferation and agree to place some of its civilian reactors under international safeguards of non-intrusive nature. This could allay US concerns on India's nuclear activities, facilitating a quick civil nuclear deal for mutual benefit.