The Indian Exception

Daily News Egypt
7 Min Read

NEW DELHI: The ratification by the United States Congress of the historic India-US Nuclear Agreement marks a remarkable new development in world affairs. Initially signed in July 2005, the agreement is a major milestone in the growing partnership between the world’s oldest and largest democracies.

That agreement signals recognition of what may be called “the Indian exception – a decision by the world’s sole superpower, together with all other nations involved in commerce in nuclear-related materials, to sell such materials to India, despite India’s refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its two nuclear tests.

India’s refusal to sign the NPT was based on principle, for the NPT is the last vestige of apartheid in the international system, granting as it does to five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council the right to be nuclear weapons states while denying the same right to others. A long-time advocate of global nuclear disarmament, India’s moral stand on the NPT enjoys near-unanimous backing within the country. Its weapons program is also widely (though far from universally) supported at home as a security imperative in a dangerous neighborhood.

Unlike Iran and North Korea, which signed the NPT and then violated its provisions through clandestine nuclear weapons programs, India has openly pursued its own nuclear development, and it has a stellar record on non-proliferation, never exporting its technology or leaking a nuclear secret. Moreover, its nuclear program is under strict civilian control.

All of this is implicitly recognized in the newly ratified India-US accord, which survived tough bilateral negotiations, codification of its provisions into US law, and unanimous approval in August by the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Finally, the Nuclear Suppliers Group of 45 countries, urged by the Bush administration to follow the IAEA’s example, did so unconditionally.

Congressional action in America was the last act of a long drama, and it cleared the way for US companies to bid for Indian nuclear contracts, an area in which they will face stiff competition from France and Russia. But the agreement’s main significance should be seen in terms of the burgeoning Indo-American relationship. Estranged during the Cold War by American support for Pakistan and India’s leadership of the non-aligned movement, the two countries have been drawing ever closer during the last decade.

Bilateral trade is booming. American companies have quintupled their investments in India over the last decade. Indians are reading MRIs for American patients, providing call-center support for American consumers, and delivering world-class research and development services for American companies. Polls have repeatedly revealed that India is one of the few countries in the developing world where America is still held in high regard.

India has also become a more visible presence in the US. There are more Indian students at American universities than those of any other foreign nationality. The successes of the growing Indian-American population have made it an influential minority in the US, including thousands of doctors and nurses, innovative Silicon Valley professionals (one of whom invented the Pentium chip, while another created Hotmail), the CEOs of Citigroup and Pepsi, two US astronauts, and the young governor of Louisiana – in addition to taxi-drivers, gas-station attendants, and clerks at all-night convenience stores.

Yoga clinics are rampant across the country, Indian restaurants are mushrooming in the remotest exurbs, and Bollywood DVDs have found unlikely American fans. India’s place in America’s consciousness is fundamentally different from what it was just half a generation ago.

Clearly, both the Bush administration and Congress have recognized this intensifying partnership when they approved the India-US Nuclear Agreement. There was, of course, opposition within both countries to the deal. In the US, the “non-proliferation ayatollahs, who hypocritically consider nuclear weapons an unmitigated evil except in their own hands, railed against it. In India, parties on both the left and the right opposed it – the former claiming that it mortgaged India’s foreign policy to the US, and the latter arguing that it didn’t go far enough to preserve India’s nuclear independence.

But, like all good agreements, the deal is a “win-win; it helps India cope with crippling energy shortages by tripling its nuclear power generating capacity, and it provides major business opportunities for American companies to sell reactors and nuclear technology. Moreover, by subjecting India’s civilian nuclear installations to international inspections, it achieves an important US foreign policy objective by bringing India into the worldwide non-proliferation fold. And there’s no question that helping India to grow will earn America the gratitude of the world’s largest free-market democracy.

The agreement will not transform India’s energy situation overnight, or end the country’s dependence on expensive fuel imports. But its passage confirms that the US relationship with India promises to be one of America’s closest and strategically most important in the 21st century. As America struggles with a financial crisis and quagmires in the Middle East and Central Asia, sealing this agreement with India may be one of the beleaguered Bush administration’s only enduring foreign policy accomplishments.

Shashi Tharoor,an acclaimed novelist and commentator, is a former Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations. This article is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with Project Syndicate,

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