India’s nuclear deal has growth at its core

By Bronwen Maddox (THE TIMES, 22/08/07):

The storm over India’s new nuclear pact with the US, which now threatens to bring down the Indian Government, illustrates the only good thing about the deal – it is an antidote to anti-Western reflexes in the country that still run deep.

Other than that, the deal is a worry, for all the reasons that the US Congress has asserted: it is an extravagant breach of the spirit of non-proliferation treaties, showering the benefits of US nuclear help on India even though it acquired nuclear weapons.

But the row is a reminder that Indian stability and prosperity are surprisingly fragile, given the country’s remarkable growth. If the resolution manages to silence the intense nationalist voices, who put a fantasy of independence ahead of the pursuit of growth, then a bad deal will have had one good result.

Who would have thought, in a deal that gives India too much while asking for too few safeguards in return, that the greatest opposition would come from within India itself? Communist allies of the ruling coalition, led by the Congress Party, have threatened to withdraw their support over the civil nuclear cooperation deal with the US.

The Communists say that the deal hurts Indian sovereignty and could make it beholden to the US. But Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister, argues that the deal ends three decades of isolation for India, because of its acquisition of nuclear weapons, which prevented it gaining help for the nuclear power stations that it needs to support its growth. The trigger for this week’s uproar has been a comment from Ronen Sen, the Indian Ambassador to the US, in which he appeared to call communists in parliament “headless chickens”; he said later that they should not be offended as the remark referred only to journalists.

The row is important, not only because it jeopardises the deal (and it probably does not do so fatally). If it pulled down the Government, it would choke off reforms needed to maintain growth at the current rate of more than 7 per cent a year. Singh, widely described as one of the architects of India’s economic modernisation, is a champion of those reforms, intended to curb the budget deficit and spread access to good jobs beyond the English-speaking middle class.

Neither Congress nor communists want an election this year, but the turmoil may still force one before the Government’s term ends in May 2009. It was never a strong coalition, born out of the mutual desire to keep the Hindu-nationalist BJP out of power. But both would be foolish to campaign on the nuclear issue, which has not touched a national chord. It arouses none of the passions of parallel nuclear questions in Pakistan or Iran, for example.

It does in the US, however, where Congress, even before it fell under Democratic control, was quick to accuse the Bush Administration of striking a deal that subverted efforts to curb proliferation in order to cement an alliance. It is some small compensation that the deal strengthens the hand of Singh and other reformers, at the expense of those who would rather India stayed shut off from the world.