New Delhi: “Make no mistake. This (nuclear deal) has been possible only because it was India.”
This was how representatives of some of countries like Brazil, South Africa, Mexico and others confided to Indian diplomats after the waiver by the powerful Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) cartel was extended to India in September 2008, months after the initialing of the Indo-US nuclear deal that has in many ways changed the way the world looked at India, transformed its relationship with the US and made India a major global player.
Intense, arduous behind-the-scene negotiations by diplomats of India and the US, with the mood in the Indian camp swinging between dark despair at times to elation at a breakthrough, helped clinch the landmark Indo-US civil nuclear deal exactly a decade ago (it was initialed in Washington on July 18, 2005) with the leaders of the then two countries playing a key enabling role, said a former top Indian diplomat who was involved in the negotiations.
Former foreign secretary Shyam Saran, and subsequently the prime minister’s special envoy on the deal, who was closely involved in the negotiations along with others, including Shivshankar Menon and MK Narayanan and a battery of Indian diplomats that included present Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar, recounted some major facets of the historic deal at a packed lecture here Monday evening.
The civil nuclear deal, which later became an agreement, was driven by the two leaders - former prime minister Manmohan Singh and President George W. Bush - both of who weighed in decisively at critical moments to tide over any impasse in talks, said Saran at a now-it-be-told talk on 'The Indo-US civil nuclear Agreement: Ten years after'.
He said the inking of the civil nuclear deal was followed by even more intense negotiations, this time with members of the NSG, to convince them on a waiver for India.
"More complex negotiations were involved in getting the NSG on board than for the Indo-US nuclear deal," Saran said. The 45 members countries came on board, despite a move by China initially to use the smaller countries as proxies to voice Beijing's opposition to the deal.
Post the conclusion of the agreement in late 2008 "a presumption of denial by the US in terms of technology became a presumption of approval", said Saran, adding that the deal unlocked the doors for India in the international civil nuclear field.
He said that president Bush was very keen for the US to conclude the deal with India, and even put his personal credibility on line for it. Bush believed that since India was a liberal, plural democracy like the US, America needed to help it in order to "preserve the space for liberal, plural democracies", said Saran at the Changing Asia Series lecture organized by India Habitat Centre and think tank Society for Policy Studies (SPS).
For Bush, the deal was "not about nuclear reactors", said Saran, recounting an incident during then prime minister Manmohan Singh's visit to the White House in 2008 after the Indo-US civil nuclear deal cleared the US Congress.
During the dinner at the White House, when both the sides were congratulating each other for the success in getting the legislation through, then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice got up and addressed Singh, saying "Mr Prime Minister, the US has done a lot of heavy lifting on your behalf to get the deal through. I hope American businesses will be able to profit for that and American nuclear plants can be sold to India". But Bush stopped her mid sentence and said "I do not care if there is not even one single nuclear reactor sold by the US. For me this was not about selling nuclear reactors to India, this was about our relationship."
"As far as India was concerned, there was no doubt in President Bush's mind that it was one of the most important relationships for the US," recounted Saran.
To a question, he said "If we had not undertaken the very intensive diplomacy that we did, we would not have got this deal through. It was very important that the political leaders gave the lead, but the groundwork, the nuts and bolts, were done by the professional diplomats. This is part of the culture of the ministry of external affairs, not always appreciated, because it is not always visible." He also added that then Foreign Minister Natwar Singh played a valuable role at a critical point in the preliminary negotiations.
To another question, he said that Manmohan Singh and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have different leadership styles.
"But given the negative legacy here of visa denial to Prime Minister Modi by the US, who would have expected that he would have taken the lead, even more than the previous government, in actually forging a much closer relationship with the US," he said.
He said Manmohan Singh not only carried through the initiatives on closer India-US ties launched by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee led NDA government, "but also updated it".
"Something similar was seen with the Modi government, not only on taking forward the initiatives, but also to a higher level."
Uday Bhaskar, director, SPS reiterated that this historic agreement removed the long festering estrangement in the India-US relationship and was enabled by a favorable combination of circumstances and perspicacious leadership on both sides. "Yes, the US did more of the heavy-lifting and both president Bush and prime minister Singh need to be applauded for their tenacity in the face of domestic criticism," he added.