India, America and the business of nuclear politics


Compare and contrast this - in May 1998 when India conducted nuclear tests, the US was the leader of a group of morally outraged nations (with their own nuclear arsenals) that rushed to condemn India and impose sanctions on the country. Today, the President of the lead country personally ensures that a historic deal is signed on his visit to the country, granting India access to the very technology that made it an outlaw just eight years back.


Mr. Bush has done so in the face of strong opposition from his people and his Congress. That by itself may be nothing new for him, but that he has done so when frantic negotiations are going on with Iran is stunning. India has never signed the NPT and a tailor-made regime will have to be designed to accommodate it. Most critics fear that, apart from accusations of double standards, this is going to set a precedent and create a parallel group of rouge nations orbiting outside the NPT. For good measure, Mr. Bush also gave his blessings to the pipeline that will bring gas from Iran to India via Pakistan, something that he had ‘absolutely’ ruled out just a few weeks back. Of course, with India’s vote on Iran, it remains to be seen whether that pipeline becomes a pipedream. The President of France went one better - he made a dash to India even before President Bush reached its shores, making sure he was second in line, after America, when India starts buying nuclear fuel, reactors and other equipment.


This change of collective nuclear heart is not due to kindness. India is an enormous country, not in terms of physical size, but in the size of its market. Its burgeoning and increasingly prosperous middle class is consuming goods faster than they can be supplied. Its infrastructure is being torn down and rebuilt. India manufactures and services almost everything, and as its policies are unshackled, its industries are ripe pickings for foreign funds. It’s no wonder that countries and their corporate captains are jockeying for position to invest in India’s future.


This deal couldn’t have come at a better time for India. Her economy, liberalized after years of socialism, is booming but burns energy at gluttonous rates. Access to nuclear technology will bridge the alarming gap between its desperate demand and supply. If no alternative is provided, China and India alone will suck up all the oil that is the lifeblood of prosperous nations. For its energy needs, India mainly uses coal, considered to be the worst in terms of pollution, contributing to the size of the hole in the ozone layer. Nuclear energy for India is therefore an imperative on all counts, for itself, for world economics and the future of planet earth.


For its part, India’s moorings have quietly changed piers. Thanks to leaders like Nehru, infant India spent its cradle years rocked by the Soviet Union and socialism. But now, one half of India has a relative working as a software professional in America while the other half works in call centers. In most other countries, it is the government that tilts towards America while the populace hates it. In India, the government signs deals with America at warp speed, its actors and youth ape its every fad, and its Green Card is worshipped by child and senior alike. Nowhere else in the world does America have as many admirers as it has in India. Adult India may not agree with Mr. Bush’s politics, but it sure adores America.


Finally, there is China, the giant that is now casting its long shadow on countries that have been undisputed masters in international trade and politics. A counterweight needs to be put in place if the principal tectonic plates of world economics are to be kept from colliding. India is a safe bet to play the role, a mature democracy and a responsible nuclear power. 


India and America have forged a new partnership but who knows what the future holds. It’s politics, after all.