By MK Bhadrakumar
The relationship between the United States and India, which lately showed signs of stress, was revamped on Monday with the announcement that the two countries have completed the "arrangements and procedures" for US-origin spent nuclear fuel to be reprocessed in India.
A major stumbling block for the "operationalization" of the civil nuclear cooperation agreement signed in 2008 by the US and India has been removed. It took tough negotiations to reach the accord. The US had previously given such reprocessing rights only to the European Atomic Energy Community and Japan. The timing is, unquestionably, political.
An agreement may be ready for signing as early as next month, when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will travel to Washington to attend the "nuclear summit" hosted by US President Barack Obama on April 12-13. This will give Manmohan's visit added significance.
US's special India ties
Without doubt, Obama is putting his personal stamp on the US-India strategic partnership. The announcement in Washington comes immediately after the US-Pakistan strategic dialogue, where Pakistan made a strong pitch to secure a nuclear deal on par with India's. There the US side said that Pakistan needs to first have a good track record in non-proliferation.
Despite the hype in Islamabad over the strategic dialogue with the US, Delhi believes the Pakistanis got much less than what they had demanded and probably expected. The Pakistanis handed Washington an imposing 56-page dossier prepared under army chief General Pervez Kiani's personal supervision that was a long wish list of all the things that Islamabad expected Washington to provide it with.
Instead, the news regarding the nuclear reprocessing agreement with the US reaffirms India's special status in the US's regional policies.
In the short term, the India-US nuclear deal may mitigate some of the bitterness felt in India over Washington being less than forthcoming in providing the Indian intelligence services with access to interrogate David Coleman Headley, a key suspect in the terrorist strike in Mumbai in November 2008 and who is standing trial in the US. (See A spy unsettles US-India ties, Asia Times Online, March 22)
In the long term, the new agreement on reprocessing "will facilitate participation by US firms in India's rapidly expanding civil nuclear energy sector". Indeed, the commercial spin-off is going to be massive for the US nuclear industry, running into tens of billions of dollars.
The powerful business lobby in the US is, from Delhi's perspective, serving a useful purpose, especially when the US economy is desperately keen to secure export orders. The Indian establishment calculates that its trump card ultimately lies in the business opportunities that the rapidly growing Indian market can offer to the US business and industry, believing this could make Delhi into Washington's long-term partner in the region. The bi-partisan support in the US Congress for a strong relationship with India acknowledges this ground reality.
A sense of frustration was building up in Delhi that Obama might be reverting to "hyphenating" US's ties with India and Pakistan rather than separately developing each relationship on intrinsic merits, which was a fine legacy of the former president George W Bush-era.
The new agreement may ease the Indian angst for a coming stormy period of the next two to three years. At least for now, AfPak remains Obama's number one priority and Pakistan's role in it will remain central.
Besides, the new agreement only provides for India to reprocess US-origin spent fuel. It does not envisage transfer of US technology as such, whereas Delhi's persistent demand has been that the US's remaining restrictions on transfer of dual-use technology for India are anachronistic.
India's course correction
All the same, the political symbolism of the new agreement cannot be lost on the international community.
The recent signing of multi-billion dollar arms deals in the defense and nuclear fields between India and Russia on the sidelines of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's visit to India would have driven home to the Obama administration that Delhi was reviving its strategic ties with Moscow with a long-term perspective.
Second, Obama is working hard to strengthen the nuclear non-proliferation regime and in essence, he just underscored the US's acceptance of India's special status in any revamped nuclear non-proliferation architecture.
Third, the US is affirming its differentiated regard for India at a time when Sino-American ties are showing signs of strain. The US probably feels the need to galvanize its overall relationship with India as part of its Asian strategy. Interestingly, even as the US-Pakistan strategic dialogue was under way in the State Department in Washington, Capitol Hill was conducting a hearing where India figured.
Testifying before the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, the commander-in-chief of the Hawaii-based Pacific Command, Admiral Robert F Willard, said, "Our nation's partnership with India is especially important to long-term South and Central Asia regional security and to US national interests in this vital sub-region."
He said India's leadership as the largest democracy in the world, its rising economic power and its influence across South Asia as well as its global influence attested to its pivotal role in shaping the regional security environment.
It cannot be lost on the Obama administration that Delhi is quietly rethinking its overall foreign policy orientation. Delhi deliberately harmonized its policies with the US's strategies and even put at risk its traditional ties of friendship with Tehran in deference to the US's containment policy toward Iran. There is a feeling in Delhi, on the other hand, that the US placed undue primacy on the AfPak cooperation with the Pakistani military.
Paradoxically, India is one of a handful of countries that has faith in Obama's AfPak strategy. Delhi wants the US surge to succeed. It sees no conflict of interests if the US military presence continues for the foreseeable future. Delhi is prepared to commit resources to be an optimal participant in the US's AfPak strategy.
No doubt, Delhi staunchly opposes the forces of extremism in Afghanistan. Most important, Delhi has steered clear of any regional initiatives that remotely smack of challenging the AfPak strategy. Yet, Delhi is intrigued that AfPak diplomacy under special representative Richard Holbrooke trampled on Indian sensitivities by its crass failure to distinguish the US's friends.
The AfPak diplomats do not seem to get the point that Delhi will do whatever it takes to safeguard its interests in a tough neighborhood and it has no choices in the matter.
Under Obama's leadership, the US-India strategic partnership may already have lost its innocence. There is bound to be greater maturity on the Indian side in assessing the volatility of the international system, the growing trends of polycentrism, the rise of China and the need for India to avoid regional isolation. How this pans out will be engrossing to watch.
India faces multiple challenges - it must keep tensions under check in relations with Pakistan, sustain the momentum in Sino-Indian understanding, work for a stable and secure Afghanistan, repair the ties with Iran, encourage the transition processes in Nepal and Sri Lanka, and, generally speaking, work on a neighborhood policy that provides underpinning for India's impressive annual growth rate coasting toward 9%, so that it becomes sustainable through the next decade or two.
Obama's signal contribution to the US-India strategic partnership is that he may be imparting a balance, a sense of proportion to it. It is up to Delhi to seize the window of opportunity. Obama is not the sort of man to browbeat India or lay down rules of conduct. Nor is his passion for India in any way to be doubted.
Surely, any of the Bush-era rhetoric that the US and India would work shoulder to shoulder as two great democracies in a brave new world or that the Indian people "loved" Bush for endeavoring to make their country a "great power" will embarrass the policy makers today - both in Delhi and in Washington.
In sum, implementation of the nuclear deal becomes a turning point in the US-India partnership. With one stroke, Obama may have calmed the troubled waters of US-India partnership. It is a masterstroke in its timing.
The present Indian government faces no worthwhile opposition domestically to the advancement of its agenda of expanding and deepening the US-India strategic partnership. The majority opinion among the Indian elites also favors strong US-India ties. Most certainly, a tumultuous reception awaits Obama when he visits India.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.