Opinion: U.S. Should Stop Pushing India on Nuke Deal

Kenny Rogers, one of country music's icons, has a line in the song "The Gambler" in which a card shark tells a greenhorn that he needs to "know when to walk away and know when to run." This piece of homespun wisdom may or may not have much value for poker players. However, in the game of international politics, where the stakes are considerably higher, it is invaluable advice. As the Bush administration enters the high noon of its negotiations with India over a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement designed to end India's decades-long nuclear isolation—a result of unwillingness to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)—the United States needs to heed the gambler's admonition.

After carefully negotiating the civilian nuclear deal with India over the past three years and after having shepherded the appropriate domestic legislation through Congress, the administration justly fears that the deal may collapse in India's fractious parliament. To save the day, key administration officials and a handful of critical congressional supporters have publicly urged Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Congress Party-led coalition government to swiftly conclude its internal deliberations as well as its ongoing discussions with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Though entirely well-meaning, these efforts have had exactly the opposite effect within India.

India's two communist parties, quite predictably, were hostile toward the deal from the outset. They correctly feared that the agreement, if concluded, would end India's long diplomatic estrangement from the United States and result in closer Indo-U.S. strategic ties. In attempts to torpedo the agreement they raised every possible bogey about it, arguing that it would curb India's political autonomy, that it would do little to alleviate India's chronic energy woes and that it would leave the country vulnerable to American economic clout. The agreement also faced specious attacks from the right-of-center Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which claimed that it would hamstring India's ongoing nuclear weapons program.

The government sought to allay the misgivings of its communist allies in parliament and attempted to publicly refute the BJP's dubious charges. However, it adopted too conciliatory a posture toward the communists and failed to bluntly refute the BJP's questionable claims. As a consequence it faced growing public skepticism about the deal, and it became increasingly mired in the vortex of India's rough-and-tumble politics. Sensing that the agreement was running into increasing opposition, whether ideological or opportunistic, the United States started to openly lean on Singh and the Congress Party to ensure that the process did not entirely stall. Sadly, that effort only helped generate a counterpush from the communists, who now found a new target to attack. They promptly asserted that the assiduous American quest to consummate the deal cloaked a more insidious agenda—obviously the United States had far more to gain from the agreement than India.

Confronted with this new line of attack, and looking toward a national election next year, some members of the Congress Party have started to fret about the wisdom of trying to wrap up the deal.

Under these delicate circumstances, any further public declarations on the part of the Bush administration and its small band of congressional allies are only likely to further undermine the deal's fragile prospects of passage. Instead the administration should declare a victory of sorts: it successfully negotiated the terms of the deal with India, helped pass appropriate domestic legislation and was prepared to take the final step with the requisite international bodies to enable India to participate in global nuclear commerce. Only the intransigence and cupidity at the two ends of India's political spectrum have placed the deal in serious jeopardy. The only way out of this impasse is to adopt a posture of disinterest in its eventual outcome. As the card shark in "The Gambler" concludes, the United States is now "plain out of aces." To save its weak hand it needs to know that the time has come to walk away from the deal and let the chips fall as they may.