Sumit Ganguly: The Politics of India's Nuclear Deal

In politics as in life, it sometimes seems no good deed goes unpunished. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has just put the finishing touches on a pact with Washington that would ratify Delhi's nuclear-weapons program and provide support for its civilian nuclear-energy program. The deal would bring India in from the cold after decades as a nuclear pariah, confirm its status as an emerging great power and seal its ever-closer bond with Washington. It's a political hat trick almost too good to be true, and pundits in the United States are already complaining that the deal gives India everything it wants while asking little in return. Yet what has been Singh's reward? He now faces the worst political crisis of his career. His government could collapse in the coming weeks —just when it should be celebrating a crowning accomplishment.

That's thanks to two powerful spoilers on the Indian scene. One is the opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, whose ally, the former Defense minister, George Fernandes, declared in Parliament a few weeks ago that were Singh a Chinese politician, his actions would have gotten him executed. The other are India's two main communist parties, members of Singh's own coalition, who have threatened to bolt from the government if the deal goes through. The left and the right share a similar complaint: that the pact would undermine India's "strategic autonomy" by forcing it to align too closely with Washington. But such rhetoric overlooks the overwhelming benefits of the deal, and the opposition more likely owes to political opportunism and outdated Indian anti- Americanism. While the sources may be petty, however, the threat is very real: India, finally poised to step into the sun, may be about to flub its big chance. The costs of failure would be profound for U.S.-India relations, Delhi's international credibility and its hopes of achieving great-power status.

It's no small irony that opposition to the deal has brought together the communists and the right-wing Hindu nationalists. Both are profoundly disingenuous. After all, it was the BJP, when in power from 1998 to 2004, that brought Washington and Delhi so close together. The BJP's current opposition can thus be explained only by base motives: its leaders are bitter at the thought that Congress will get credit for their groundwork; and they sense an opportunity to bring down their enemies.

The communists, meanwhile, look equally opportunistic, and their claims of Indian nationalism ring hollow. Though they claim the accord would make India subservient to the United States, they had no problem when India showed great favoritism toward the Soviet line through much of the cold war. More fundamentally, it's impossible to honestly believe that the deal will in any way compromise India's independence. The accord would make India a recognized member of the nuclear club—a closed circle of nations circumscribed by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which India has refused to sign. Moreover, after long neglect from Washington, it would confirm India's new status as a global player. Such standing has long been the dream of India's policymakers; achieving it would enhance, not limit, India's strategic autonomy.

Then there are the nuts and bolts of the deal itself. India's refusal to sign the NPT starting in the 1960s and its subsequent nuclear tests exposed it to a raft of international sanctions, denying it access to nuclear fuel and critical technology. Such restrictions hobbled the country's civilian nuclear-power industry. The new deal would reverse all this, affording India the same benefits as NPT membership, including access to critical technology and fuel. Once blessed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Nuclear Suppliers Group the deal would finally unshackle India's high-tech and civilian nuclear industries. The communists have no grounds for opposing such a turn, which would help address India's acute energy shortage and improve the lives of its citizens. Yet that has not stopped the communists from trying to scotch the deal.

It remains unclear whether they'll succeed. Three scenarios seem likely. First, the communists could make good on their threat to leave the government and to try to bring it down. With 62 seats in Parliament, they have the numbers. But such an outcome remains unlikely, since voting against the Congress-led government would mean voting with the chauvinist BJP, whom the communists loathe even more than the United States.

Second, the communists could strike a deal with Singh, ensuring their continued support in exchange for a larger role in India's foreign and security policy. In practical terms, that would likely mean limiting U.S.-India defense cooperation, resuscitating India's espousal of Third World solidarity, and cozying up to anti-American regimes. Though slightly more plausible, this scenario is also unlikely. India can't afford to revive the precepts of nonalignment. The country needs investment from advanced industrial states, collaborative ventures and access to their markets. Outdated rhetoric could prevent such goods, leading India to be marginalized once more.

The most likely outcome, therefore, is that Singh will stand firm. He has already publicly called the communists' bluff, daring them to bolt. If he continues to ignore their threats and the baying of the BJP while forging ahead with the deal, it will strengthen his hand by making him seem tough and able to deliver. Even if the communists do then succeed in bringing his government down, it could play in Congress's favor. After all, the communists garnered barely 5 percent of the vote in the last national election, and due to some clumsy recent maneuvering, would likely attract even less support now. And voters who abandoned the communists would never turn to the BJP. This means new elections would likely increase Congress's power.

Standing firm would send an unequivocal message to India's voters: that the country's long-term interests cannot and must not be held hostage to political opportunists or outdated ideologues. That's a position most Indians seem likely to respond to. Despite the threats, therefore, it's too soon to count out Singh or the nuclear deal. The stakes, for India and the United States, are just too high—and that's something Indian voters will hopefully recognize.