India in Internal Fight Over U.S. Nuke Deal

Politics is complicating a comprehensive agreement on new limits.

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A landmark nuclear cooperation deal between the United States and India is in jeopardy as a result of unexpectedly strong opposition by both leftist and rightist Indian politicians who complain that the agreement will hamper India's evolution into a great power with a robust nuclear arsenal.

The political turmoil over the deal in New Delhi—coming after two years of painstaking negotiations—could weaken or even force the early demise of the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, an economic reformer from India's Congress Party who is staking his position on the agreement's success.

The controversial arrangement carves out an exception in U.S. nonproliferation policy, allowing American firms to supply nuclear fuel and technology to India, even though India has refused to sign the global Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons or promise to stop testing atomic bombs. In return, the Indians would separate their civilian and military nuclear programs and accept international safeguards over the civilian portion.

U.S. and Indian officials have characterized the deal as the cornerstone of a new strategic relationship between the world's largest and the world's most powerful democracies, overturning decades of prickly estrangement. Some conservatives within the Bush administration see the effort to strengthen an energy-short but democratic India as a way to balance the power of a rising, Communist China. State Department officials put stronger U.S.-Indian ties near the top of Bush-era diplomatic achievements—at a time when administration policies in the Middle East and elsewhere are under heavy criticism.

The deal must still muster final approval by the U.S. Congress, and officials in Washington are divided over how much danger the nuclear pact is in here.

In India, Singh heads a coalition government that routinely relies on the support of four different Communist parties with reflexively anti-U.S. stands. "The Left parties have been watching with disquiet the way the UPA [Singh's coalition] government has gone about forging close strategic and military ties with the United States," Prakash Karat, head of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), wrote last week. He contends there is an "American imperative to bind India to its strategic designs in Asia."

The left in India is upset that under the deal's enabling legislation passed by the U.S. Congress, Washington will have the ability to curb Indian policies it opposes. They cite U.S. pressure on India to vote against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency because of its nuclear programs and to abandon plans for a natural gas pipeline from Iran. Indian left-wingers are also angry over intensifying cooperation between the Indian and U.S. militaries. Some leftist politicians have hinted at withdrawing support from Singh's government, which could weaken it decisively, if it proceeds to implement the deal.

The right-leaning Hindu nationalist BJP party, which sits in opposition, has also weighed in against the nuclear deal, charging that it could restrict India's ability to develop its nuclear force. Its objections have further isolated Singh, but the BJP moves appear motivated more by political gain than an ideological problem with the deal.

The opposition to the deal reflects long-entrenched suspicion of Washington in Indian political and intellectual circles. But those suspicions lack the weight they once had. Rapidly growing bilateral trade, the presence of large numbers of Indians in the United States, and India's ongoing shift away from state economic controls to free markets all have changed the political landscape there.

Indian officials, says Stephen P. Cohen, a leading South Asia expert with the Brookings Institution, "are shifting toward a new alignment" with the United States. Their calculation: India needs from the United States trade, technology, investment, and political support to evolve into a great power on the world stage. Cohen thinks that Singh will surmount opposition to the nuclear deal.