Unmet expectations

Print edition : October 10, 1998

Despite claims of progress in the Indo-U.S. dialogue on the CTBT and related issues, reconciling India's "security interests" and the U.S' non-proliferation agenda is proving difficult.

IF one were to believe the saffron spin masters who are working overtime in the United States, India's stand on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) remains unchanged, and it has made clear to the "interlocutors" that New Delhi will not accept the Treaty unconditionally. What precisely these conditions are depends on who does the talking. But it is obvious to observers of the Indo-U.S. dialogue that has been going on over the last four months that there has yet to be some measure of U.S. support and understanding for India's stand.

On another note, it was announced last fortnight that U.S. President Bill Clinton would not visit South Asia this November; Washington, however, cautiously stated that the trip had been "postponed", not cancelled. That the visit would be postponed was sufficiently clear in recent weeks, particularly after it was announced that the seventh round of Indo-U.S. talks would be held in New Delhi this November. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and the Indian Prime Minister's special envoy Jaswant Singh have thus far met six times, in Washington, Geneva and New Delhi.

Claiming that progress had been made in talks with India and Pakistan, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Karl Inderfurth, however, argued that several important issues remained on the agenda. Among these are the formal signing and ratification of the CTBT by India and Pakistan; the evolving of a mechanism at the multilateral level to suspend the production of fissile materials; the structuring of a restraint regime by India and Pakistan, in line with the concept of minimum deterrence; and the elaboration by the two countries of their adherence to a nuclear export controls regime.

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee's speech at the United Nations was received positively in several international quarters, including Washington, but there is a perception in some quarters that he should have been more specific vis-a-vis the CTBT. One view is that instead of conveying the impression in his speech that New Delhi would sign the Treaty and later running around to impress upon the journalistic and the international community that this was subject to conditions, Vajpayee should have spelt out precisely what India's terms are.

The bottom line is that an agreement between India and the U.S. on the CTBT will be as difficult for the Clinton Administration to 'sell' at home as it will be for the Vajpayee Government to do so in India. In these six rounds of talks, the U.S. and India have gone about trying to define what the parameters should be and how the security interests of India and the non-proliferation agenda of the U.S. can be "reconciled".

Evidently, this "reconciliation" process has not been easy, although every now and then the "deal" theorists come out with their version of events. Nearly everyone is convinced that if Washington and New Delhi are unable to come to an understanding, this has partly to do with the concept of "minimum deterrence" capability that the Vajpayee Government insists on retaining. The sanctions imposed by the U.S. have also proved to be a stumbling block.

Some progress was made on the subject of sanctions after Vajpayee and his entourage left New York: the Brownback Amendment (which will allow for the temporary lifting of agricultural sanctions), riding piggyback on the Agricultural Appropriations Bill, was cleared by the Conference Committee. The final bill will now have to be voted upon in the Committees, the House of Representatives and the Senate and will then go to the President for his signature. No trouble is expected as neither Congress nor the President would want to "mess" with the Agriculture Spending Bill.

What the Indian Government expects and what it will get are two different things, and no amount of rhetoric from the saffron brigade on India's "greatness" will make a difference. In the world of geopolitics, "greatness" is measured by strength, specifically economic strength.

The Indian Government expects that in addition to accepting India's "genuine" security concerns, the U.S. will soften its stance and facilitate the flow of high tech, and perhaps enable cooperation in the civilian nuclear field. Some forward movement may indeed occur, but it would be wrong to expect it to come about by executive fiat and that too over a very short period of time.

Even if there is some movement in the realm of sanctions, it will not be the result of superior negotiating skills of the BJP's spin masters. Rather, it will happen because the U.S. administration and Congress feel compelled to let India off the hook, and for altogether other reasons. There is genuine concern about the effect of the sanctions on Pakistan, which is tottering on the brink of economic collapse; another factor is the political price of letting an "old ally" or a client state down the tubes. To lift the sanctions on Pakistan alone would be unthinkable. Further, the spectre of desperate elements in the Pakistani nuclear and missile establishment peddling technology that might reach West Asia and threaten Israel is too frightening for U.S. administration officials to contemplate.

Congress was more concerned with the effect that the sanctions were having on the farm lobby; the prospect of facing a backlash in an election year was an uncomfortable one. Having earlier exempted farm credits citing humanitarian grounds, the administration and Congress wished to go the whole hog with the exception of military items and dual-use technology. The presidential waiver that has been granted for one year will be used by the administration contingent upon progress in the ongoing dialogue with India and Pakistan.

But the so-called "deal" faces trouble not just in India, where the BJP is taking flak for "surrendering" national sovereignty; it is a big headache for the Clinton administration too because the U.S. is unable to meet India's "expectations", especially in respect of transfer of high tech and dual-use technology which have been denied to India for long.

Even if it is claimed that the Talbott-Jaswant Singh talks have registered progress, a sceptical Congress may not be inclined to "reward" India for having gone nuclear. While there is a realisation that Congress and the administration would have to rethink the issue of sanctions keeping in mind the U.S' (economic) interests, there is not much enthusiasm for parting with high tech and dual-use technology.

Further, the domestic environment in the U.S. too would have to be factored. At one time there was a definite impression that Clinton would have to be involved in "selling" to Congress any deal struck with India. This is because conservative Republicans will not readily buy anything brokered by Talbott, given the latter's personality and ideology. Nor does it seem likely that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will pursue a deal for India with any great enthusiasm. Now a distracted and a weakened President does not have much manoeuvring room in Congress. Further, Clinton may want to save what little clout he has to press other domestic and foreign policy issues.

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