Indian nuclear agreement on its last legs

RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images Last week, a late-night phone call between President George W. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sparked widespread sputters about the vital signs of the U.S.-India nuclear deal. In response to questioning, White House spokesman Tony Fratto responded “no, it’s not dead,” even though Singh has, at the very least, set the ...

598590_0710123_singh_05.jpg
598590_0710123_singh_05.jpg

RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, a late-night phone call between President George W. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sparked widespread sputters about the vital signs of the U.S.-India nuclear deal. In response to questioning, White House spokesman Tony Fratto responded "no, it’s not dead," even though Singh has, at the very least, set the deal aside for now.

The deal has been slipping over the past few months because of Indian domestic politics. Singh's government depends on the Communists for support in Parliament. When the government signed the nuclear deal with the United States, the Communists were infuriated. They believed the deal would sacrifice Indian sovereignty and potentially risk indigenous scientific development. A confrontation ensued: The Communists vaguely threatened to withdraw support for the government (which would force a snap election) if the deal were not subjected to parliamentary debate, and the government dared them to go ahead.

RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, a late-night phone call between President George W. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sparked widespread sputters about the vital signs of the U.S.-India nuclear deal. In response to questioning, White House spokesman Tony Fratto responded “no, it’s not dead,” even though Singh has, at the very least, set the deal aside for now.

The deal has been slipping over the past few months because of Indian domestic politics. Singh’s government depends on the Communists for support in Parliament. When the government signed the nuclear deal with the United States, the Communists were infuriated. They believed the deal would sacrifice Indian sovereignty and potentially risk indigenous scientific development. A confrontation ensued: The Communists vaguely threatened to withdraw support for the government (which would force a snap election) if the deal were not subjected to parliamentary debate, and the government dared them to go ahead.

The deal now appears to be in worse shape than the White House is willing to acknowledge. Singh’s government blinked first, and final negotiations on the deal have been postponed, apparently indefinitely. As Singh’s office delicately put it, “[C]ertain difficulties have arisen with respect to the operationalization of the India-U.S. civil nuclear cooperation agreement.”

Singh does not want to risk early elections, apparently. Barring that possibility, the current government will remain in power until 2009. A statement by an important parliamentary ally summed up what is likely the government’s thinking, “Frankly, the deal is not important… The government is important.”

As attempts to finalize the deal drag on, key supporters in the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group and the U.S. Congress may also lose enthusiasm. And as the United States enters election season, the Democrats will probably be increasingly unlikely to hand a foreign-policy success to President Bush and the Republicans. Another indication that prospects for the deal are slipping comes from its supporters, who have begun to hedge their bets by attempting to “describe the nuclear accord as one piece of a broader relationship” that will endure, regardless of the deal’s success. The deal isn’t completely dead yet, but it is looking less and less likely in the near future.

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