India and the US: Engaged Democracies!

Rudra Chaudhuri

‘Estranged democracies’ is how Dennis Kux once characterised relations between the US and India. For a large part of India’s independent history, Kux’s characterisation hit the nail bang on the head. A norm of suspicion with regards to the American’s seemed to have institutionalised itself within India’s strategic culture, and there were good reasons for this. Truman and Eisenhower’s unwillingness to understand or comprehend Jawaharlal Nehru’s non-alignment ideational paradigm; the 1954 grand strategic stab on the back, caused due to a military pact signed between the US and Pakistan that brought the Cold War to the heart of South Asia; and the suspension of nuclear fuel to the reactor at Tarapur following the 1974 ‘peaceful’ nuclear explosion strengthened the ‘estranged’ thesis adopted by Kux.

However, in the current political setting, the administrations in the US and India are trying hard to weave out differences. While the administrations are engaged in hammering out, what should be and what can’t be included in the ‘123’ agreement; political commentators and analysts in India seem to have adopted a negative and almost antagonistic position with regards to America’s demands.

This commentary, while well aware and in support of India’s right to remain strategically sovereign, in matters related to further nuclear testing or determining the size of her nuclear arsenal absent of outside interference; highlights why perhaps we in India need to cut the American’s some political slack. Given the fact that both countries are unwilling to return to ‘estrangement’, it would be apt to reflect on the occasional support we have received from the American administration in the past in order to better appreciate the efforts made to recognise India as a great power. Constant reminders on the lessons of Tarapur are certainly warranted, but some light on America’s engagement polices are also necessary. For if we as a nation, progressive as we seem, are to embrace change. In this case, in our ‘partnership’ with a country that has a lot to offer, perhaps we need to do more to change our own perceptions and shed what is essentially, historical baggage.

The primary source of disagreement arises from the American desire to convert India’s declared moratorium on further nuclear testing into a clause in the proposed agreement. This was not part of the 18 July 2005 Indo-US Joint statement, the basic outline for the proposed treaty that is meant to provide “full civil nuclear energy cooperation” to India. This, even-though India has not signed the non proliferation treaty, and hence, as far as the Americans are concerned, a historic break or exception to past efforts to strengthen the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Something that is simply not an option for proliferating states such as Pakistan or for that matter any other state in the international system.

The debate between the American’s and those in India is not a new one, and should not be treated as though it is. Between 1998 and 2002, Jaswant Singh in India, and Strobe Talbot from the US held fourteen conversations in seven different countries. The primary aim of the conversations was to begin a process of ‘engagement’ following the May 1998 nuclear tests in Pokhran and the thumping number of sanctions imposed on India by President Clinton. During these conversations, Talbot tried to operationlise what he called the five benchmarks or guarantees the US would have wanted if the sanctions regime was to be withdrawn.

One of these benchmarks, possibly the most important, was to get India to sign the comprehensive test ban treaty. Hence, Talbot was essentially attempting to do then what Nicholas Burns, the chief American interlocutor for the present ‘deal’, is hard pressed on doing in the current context: convert the Indian government’s declaration of a moratorium on further testing into a binding treaty. The difference, while Talbot tried to convince Jaswant Singh to sign a an international treaty that ironically the American Senate failed to ratify in October 1999; Burns is doing everything he can to convince Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s administration to insert a clause in the 123 agreement that will prevent India from testing in the future. Burns’ initiatives, in this score, while not acceptable to any self-respecting nation-state should be viewed from the Bush administrations need to appease the Senate vote, and perhaps not from the perspective that goes onto blame the Bush administration for spearheading the potential downfall of the deal; as has been done by some commentators.

In the past, as also in the present, the US administration, if not their Congress, in certain instances have gone out of their way to support their Indian counterparts. In 1962, following the Chinese attack on India’s Eastern border region, the US under President Kennedy, with little inhibition assisted the Indian’s by supplying arms and transport planes. Between November 3 and 14, 1962, sixty air-loads of equipment were dropped off at Calcutta’s airport. In 1974, when many in India felt betrayed by the Americans during the Tarapur crisis, the National Regulatory Commission in the US decided to continue shipments (June 28, 1976) of uranium to India due to the pressure emanating from Jimmy Carter’s White House. This, in spite of a strong lobby against the support of uranium to India.

Presently, the Bush administration is doing what some in the American Congress view, as a blatant betrayal of America’s historic commitment to non-proliferation. Many have branded the American administration of playing a game of double standards. The Bush administration is accused of threatening Iran with sanctions and the use of force unless it suspends its nuclear enrichment activities; while at the same time, offering India an exception to US non-proliferation laws, that is historically unprecedented.

The time for a rapprochement is here. Rather than engaging in a not so useful blame game, perhaps its time to provide more light on what can be done to create a middle ground between US demands, and India’s rightful position to keep her ‘options open’.

Author Note
Rudra Chaudhuri is a Doctoral Fellow at the department of war studies, King’s College London.