What if the nuclear deal collapses?

IThe Indo-US nuclear deal is facing an uphill struggle in the US Congress. US hawks are paranoid about Iran going nuclear, and argue that relaxing the rules for India will simply encourage Iran . Some US legislators want to attach conditions unacceptable to India (such as suspension of nuclear supplies if the US determines that India has engaged in military, nuclear or even commercial deals with Iran ).

Maybe Congress will ultimately pass legislation acceptable to India . But if not, what will be the impact on Indo-US relations?

Disastrous, say some foreign policy analysts. They think the momentum generated by the Bush-Manmohan agreement will be lost, and not easily regained. No other US President is likely to upset so many domestic lobbies in order to favour India . Besides, without nuclear imports, India cannot expand nuclear power capacity, and will become more dependent than ever on oil and gas.

My view is that rejection by US Congress would be a setback, but not a disaster. The real strength of Indo-US relations has been built by commercial and person-to-person contacts, not government-to-government contacts. These commercial and inter-personal ties will keep strengthening even if the governments fall out.

Let’s face it: the great strategic Indo-US relationship envisaged in the Bush-Manmohan agreement of July 2005 is not attuned to ground realities. India and the US are simply not on the same strategic wave-length. The best proof of this is the unanimous Lok Sabha resolution deploring the US invasion of Iraq . Any US attack on Iran will provoke a similar Lok Sabha resolution. That will outrage US Congress, which will probably rescind any pro-India nuclear law it may be persuaded to pass this year.

Maybe India will be able to steer a course that antagonizes neither the US nor Iran . Yet, clearly, the proposed strategic relationship rests on a weak foundation. With luck and good management, the foundation may strengthen over time. But that is not certain.

When the Bush-Manmohan agreement was signed last July, most analysts thought the US wanted to cozy up to India as a potential world power that could counterbalance China in the region. They emphasized that India and the US had a common enemy in Islamic terrorism. Most failed to see that Iran could become a stumbling block, or that competition for Muslim votes by Indian political parties might affect foreign policy.

The two countries may be liberal, secular democracies, but this common ground does not imply a common world-view. You cannot imagine Bush acting like Manmohan Singh in asking the Danish government to extract an apology from Danish newspapers that published cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. Or in refusing to act against a UP Minister who offered a reward for the murder of the Danish cartoonist.

Differences in the mind-set of the two governments will not impede stronger commercial and inter-personal ties. During the Cold War, Indo-US governmental relations were often strained, since India was friendly with the Soviet Union . But even in that era the US was India ‘s largest trading partner. Indians loved rock music, Hollywood films and Western literature, but shunned Soviet films and culture. Lakhs of Indians, including Marxists, sent their children to study in American universities, not to Soviet ones. By 1990, one million Indians had become US citizens, but virtually none had become Soviet citizens.

A recent Pew survey showed that 71% of Indians have a positive image of the US , up from 54% three years ago. So the people of the two countries have more in common than the two governments. A TV survey showed that most Indians also see the US as a bully. Jairam Ramesh summed up the Indian attitude brilliantly: Yankee go home, but take me with you.

Indian migrants to Silicon Valley sparked the infotech revolution which has now made India a world leader in computer software and BPO. Today the vast majority of the Fortune 500 ( the 500 largest corporations in the US ) have invested in India . They simply have to be in one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. That highlights the strong roots of the commercial relationship. This relationship would acquire a new dimension if it included nuclear power plants. But even without that, it will remain very strong.

At the personal level, the number US residents of Indian origin doubled in 1991-2001 to two million, and may double again in the next decade. Indian Americans occupy top positions in Wall Street, academia and corporations, and are now entering politics. They look like becoming a powerful lobby that could influence future commercial and foreign policy.

A civilian nuclear deal would certain strengthen the relationship. But even if the nuclear deal falls through, it will by no means spell disaster. Commercial and inter-personal ties will keep booming. And they constitute the real foundation of the relationship

What do you think?