India a step closer to nuclear trade

The Nuclear Suppliers Group agreed Saturday to lift a 34-year ban on selling nuclear technology to India, even though it hasn't signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Win: India's Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee (c.) spoke in New Delhi Saturday after the US and India convinced wary members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group to approve their nuclear deal.
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Saturday's news that the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) had approved India for civilian nuclear trade was heralded as a watershed moment in the country, with nonstop television coverage and breathless headlines: "India No More N-Pariah."

The decision to open India to nuclear trade – despite the fact that it has a military nuclear program in violation of international codes – faced stiff opposition during NSG talks this weekend in Vienna. But for the US and India, who have been pushing the deal, the accord is expected to boost the two countries' ties and help India meet its growing demand for energy.

What means most to the Indians who support the controversial deal is that one of the world's most exclusive clubs decided to give India a membership card.

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"It is psychologically important," says K. Subrahmanyam, a former member of the National Security Council Advisory Board. "India has been recognized as a power not to be subjected to a discriminating regime."

A widespread feeling in India is that the country has been unfairly punished for harboring ambitions no different from that of any other nation of the nuclear club. Its only mistake, the thinking goes, is that it came to the table too late. In fact, the NSG, which regulates nuclear commerce, was formed in response to India's first nuclear test in 1974.

To many Indians, then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's decision to test a nuclear weapon was the fulfillment of India's destiny, at last taking the nation into the exclusive company that its population and millenniums-old history demanded. To many in the international community, however, it marked India's attempt to crash the global order.

Now, India has done it, and for some it is a moment for celebration. "It should have been done a long time ago," says Mr. Subrahmanyam.

In winning NSG approval Saturday, India has succeeded where no other country had before: presented itself before the international community's nuclear arbiters as a faithful steward of the world's most dangerous secrets. After days of complex negotiations, the 45 nations of the NSG decided that – even at a time when Iran and North Korea are considering the same path India took in 1974 – they trusted India.

"It is a recognition that India has been a responsible nuclear power," says Subrahmanyam. "The rise of India as a power has not been seen as threatening the rest of the world."

Yet there is hardly universal accord that approving the deal was a smart move – either in or outside India. What seems clear at this early stage is that this was a diplomatic coup for India and the US. As recently as last Friday, the deal was reportedly on the verge of collapse.

Challenges still lie ahead. To realize the full potential of the deal, the US Congress must approve American trade of civilian nuclear technology with India. It is uncertain if that can be done before the current congressional session ends in a few weeks.

Still, much was accomplished in Vienna this weekend. Austria, New Zealand, and Ireland had reportedly wanted an addendum that civilian nuclear trade would be suspended if India resumed weaponized nuclear testing. The US opposed this, knowing that such a caveat would ruin the deal in India.

Even within India, some analysts oppose the deal because they see in it a hint of neoimperialism: that the international community will play with India only if India behaves and doesn't test any more nuclear weapons. "The deal is very divisive in India, and that divisiveness will not end," says Brahma Chellaney, an analyst at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.

While the US feels it has taken a crucial step toward cementing a new partnership in China's backyard, Mr. Chellaney suggests it was unnecessary. "The relationship doesn't need this deal," he says. "The momentum has already been set."

A similar attraction could be the potential opening of a $150 billion market for civilian nuclear technology. India, too, is eager for it. Chronic power shortages are one major infrastructure shortcoming that could endanger India's 9-plus percent growth.

With a lack of domestic technology and fuel, the country has never been able to turn to nuclear energy to help fill the gap. Now it can. India's Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee has estimated that under this agreement, India's nuclear power plants could increase output by more than five times by 2022 and by more than 13 times by 2032.

Yet even in that, critics have reservations. Both the Bush administration in the US and the current coalition government in India had invested so much time and energy in the deal that they needed to push through something at any cost, says Chellaney. The result is a deal with few specifics – like what will happen with the spent fuel from Indian reactors."There are key issues left unresolved," he says.

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