By Jo Johnson and Caroline Daniel - FT
Published: January 27 2006 02:00 | Last updated: January 27 2006 02:00
When President George W. Bush makes his first visit to India in March, officials in New Delhi had hoped to be more than just tour guides.
Instead, they wanted to cement the strategic relationship by seeing the US move to lift restrictions on nuclear co-operation, a key step towards embracing India as a nuclear power.
Yet the trip threatens to be overshadowed by wrangling over how India will separate its civilian and military nuclear facilities and place the former under international safeguards.
A former US official said that US diplomats came to the conclusion earlier this month that nothing would happen by Mr Bush's trip in March.
He blamed the faulty origins of the deal, which was forged last July behind closed doors, late at night with no congressional consultation and few details.
"You reap what you sow," the official said.
While filling in those details is now proving problematic, the original ambition was simple: to end the anomalous situation created by India's refusal to sign what it regarded as a discriminatory Non-Proliferation Treaty and give up its option to become a nuclear weapons state.
It exercised this option in 1998, but could not be recognised as a nuclear weapons state by NPT signatories and attracted US sanctions.
Since the 1998 nuclear tests, it has been India's objective to circumvent the NPT by persuading a dominant power to recognise it as a nuclear weapons state and to use that endorsement to persuade other members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group to follow suit.
Even so, New Delhi faces difficulties on two fronts. First, its atomic energy establishment is not yet fully on board. The Department of Atomic Energy has presented a draft separation plan that was, in the words of C. Raja Mohan, a security expert and commentator, "rather meagre and hardly credible".
Its second difficulty lies in securing the support of Communist coalition partners, who accuse the US of linking the talks to India's vote to send Iran's nuclear programme to the United Nations Security Council and berate the government for its abandonment of India's traditional anti-imperialism and stance of non-alignment.
The US faces equally tough domestic politics. Many congressmen, such as Tom Lantos, have made it clear that their support is dependent on India voting the right way on Iran. Administration officials have also sparked unease by appearing to link the two issues.
"We mishandled the Iran connection from the beginning and there has been a screw-up. We have made it harder for the Indians," says George Perkovich, vice-president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The administration faces an articulate non-proliferation lobby concerned about the fate of the NPT, as well as bruised congressional feelings atthe lack of consultation when the deal was struck and a lack of strong advocates. Even Democrats who play a leading role in the US-India lobby have been reluctant to express clear support, waiting to see if they can deliver a blow to the administration by scotching a key policy.
On the plus side in the US, few congressmen want to offend Indian-Americans in an election year, and generally support closer engagement with India.
The US-India lobby is the largest on Capitol Hill, with nearly 200 members. "The US industry is supportive," says Ron Somers, of the US-India Business Council. "The business community wants the administration to take the lead, and we are waiting for word that the separation plan is in hand and credible, and then industry's voice will be heard on Capitol Hill."
Few believe India will miss the chance to do a deal that addresses its chronic energy shortage. If India does not secure a nuclear supply deal with the US, it will soon, for example, have no fuel to run its reactor at Tarapur in Maharashtra and is unlikely, in the absence of US consent, to be able to secure this fuel from anyone else.
"Even Russia has made it clear that it might not be able to supply fuel for Tarapur until India comes to an non-proliferation understanding with the international community," Mr Mohan wrote this week.
"If there is no progress before President Bush arrives here, India might as well forget about the nuclear deal."