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Indo-US Nuclear Deal

What kind of a relationship do we want?
by Rohit Triptahi

In 2003, I urged the top leadership of the Indian National Congress to formulate an Indo-US relationship that was people-centric. My most enthusiastic supporter at the time was Mr. Natwar Singh, then the Congress Party’s foreign policy head who later became India’s foreign minister. Mr. Singh, impressed by my group Young India’s passion and articulation, called it a source of “inspiration” while writing in a national magazine. Two years later the government he represented signed a nuclear agreement with the Bush administration. The much-touted people-centric focus of two years ago was nowhere to be seen. Any claim of meaningful impact of this deal on India’s rural masses (72% of the population) is weak at best and disingenuous at worst. Impact on the American citizenry is yet to be acknowledged.

Independent of the position one takes on the deal itself it is hard to fathom this emphasis placed on it in terms of the future of an emerging alliance. The activism this deal has aroused presumes that a nuclear component to the bilateral relationship will enhance it. Here is where the fundamental question arises: what kind of a relationship do we want and what priorities should it have? This should be determined by national debates involving ordinary citizens of the two countries, not by bureaucrats or expatriates alone. The relationship should address issues that confront both peoples and fosters interaction that is mutually respectful and mutually beneficial. The common goals spelt out by any policy of cooperation should address people-centric objectives, not just “strategic” necessities. Such thinking will prevent deals such as the civilian nuclear deal from disproportionately consuming precious political and diplomatic capital.

If energy is truly to become a focal point of Indo-US engagement then energy needs of both nations will be much better served by signing an Energy Initiative that aims at developing alternative technologies to achieve energy independence for both nations by 2015. Nuclear technology could well be a component of a diversified energy portfolio while keeping both nations honest about disarmament and nonproliferation. Such an approach will not only have obvious economic benefits but also enhance the national security of both nations. This will be far better than signing and funding an amorphous deal that barely touches the American people beyond their representatives explaining that it is “strategically” good.

Beyond a “strategic” alignment is there something that binds the two nations on the basis of their founding principles and commits them into a relationship that truly furthers these principles? Henry David Thoreau inspired Mahatma Gandhi to use civil disobedience first in South Africa and then in India to fight imperialism. Gandhi’s success then inspired an extraordinary generation of Americans who used nonviolence to further the struggle for racial parity. Every American that took a blow during the Civil Rights movement without returning one in retaliation was inextricably linked to an earlier generation from India that took blow after blow from the British, who broke their bodies but not the Indian spirit. Such a history compels both nations to have a moral obligation to peace. The saga of peace and freedom that has played out in the two countries has inspired millions. They must jointly persevere in addressing conflicts in non-militaristic ways. There is much that both nations can do more than donating a few million dollars to a democracy fund.

The mindset that has motivated the nuclear deal is in such stark contrast to this pre-existing albeit forgotten bond mentioned above. Many can and do argue that nuclear technology will be used for peaceful purposes and that this deal will actually strengthen nonproliferation by bringing 14 of India’s reactors under IAEA safeguards. India is not a proliferation threat to begin with hence this deal barely changes the status quo. More troubling is the glaring absence from these negotiations of any talk of test ban treaties or any movement towards eventual disarmament. Tangible steps to make the world safer are not in evidence.

If currying more and more favors from the US government is all the Indian government wants to achieve as part of this relationship then India is on the right track. But such an approach only undermines India’s position as a partner. It sustains India’s dependency, both political and economic, on the United States. Instead a collective resolve to address those challenges that ordinary Americans and Indians face on a daily basis is required. The bilateral engagement should be people-centric in a more direct way. It must respond to the problems of small-business entrepreneurship, employment, education, health-care, global trade, the environment, poverty and many more of the likes that afflict the people directly. Only then will we cement a meaningful and sustainable friendship - much stronger and durable than a “strategic” partnership. Something to think about.

Rohit Tripathi
President, Young India, Inc.


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