A passage through India

Don’t be fooled into thinking that President Bush won’t sweat during the last year of his presidency.

Sure, the bulk of the administration’s policy goal checklist has faded into fantasy and longing: an overhaul of the tax code, mass privatization of Social Security, a surgical strike on Iran. There is, however, one major wish that has yet to be completely scratched off.

This year will offer the last opportunity for Congress to ratify the U.S.-India nuclear agreement (the 123 Treaty), by which the U.S. would transfer nuclear technology in exchange for India opening the bulk of their nuclear reactors to international inspection — an agreement whose groundbreaking capacity is exceeded only by its penchant for polarization. Yet given the myriad obstacles that stand in the way of ratification, efforts to analyze the agreement may be better spent toward eulogizing it.

While Congress overwhelmingly passed the enabling legislation that allowed the process to move forward in 2006, it did so knowing that it would have the final say when the treaty came up for ratification. Lawmakers have been wary that the deal wouldn’t obligate India to sign on to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) while allowing them to keep their fast-breeder reactors — which produce the fissile material necessary for nuclear weapons — from international inspection. Top it off with New Delhi’s somewhat cozy relations with Iran and you have two key ingredients for a legislative death knell: political kryptonite and a presidential election season.

A consortium of leftist parliamentarians who help make up Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s parliamentary majority oppose the deal, forwarding the notion that the treaty would sacrifice India’s autonomy to the U.S, and has threatened exodus.

But with the recent assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the future may have us lamenting over the loss of an opportunity to bring the region a dose of much-needed stability, instead of rejoicing at not having to make another difficult foreign policy call.

While the Bhutto assassination briefly thrived inside the 24-hour news cycle, Pakistan’s political instability remains vibrant. Regardless of the many variations that represent the country’s political future — including either a “benign” dictatorship under President Pervez Musharraf that operates under the specter of destabilization; or a potential return of Nawaz Sharif as prime minister, who had catalyzed a 1999 war with India in Kashmir — each produces the same enduring result: a near-failed nuclear state.

Inexplicably, though, there hasn’t been much analysis on the potential ripple effect in India. Without much fanfare, the leader of the hardliner Hindu nationalist BJP party, L.K. Advani, condemned the assassination before adding, “I have a feeling that the kind of Talibanization of Pakistan that is taking place is a threat to India’s security also.”

This is coming at a time when the BJP scored impressive and largely unforeseen victories in provincial elections, relying on a “Two Indias” platform: that the country’s recent economic growth has eluded much of the population. (The poverty rate hovers at an astounding 30 percent, areas of the country still undergo roving blackouts and an unsettling phenomenon of farmers committing suicide due to insurmountable debt has arisen.) The BJP is clearly looking to use Pakistan’s instability to supplement their populist platform, with an eye toward winning back the parliamentary majority it lost in 2004.

The conclusion to this story is an unstable and potentially more adversarial nuclear Pakistan neighboring a hardliner nuclear India; possibly, if not likely, showcasing many of the players that brought the two countries to war several years ago, and tragically erasing the improved relations that were built by Singh and Musharraf.

So what does this have to do with the nuclear agreement? In spite of all its baggage, the deal will do much to spread India’s robust economic growth by quenching its vast energy thirst and concretizing economic relations with the U.S., prospectively resulting in over $1 trillion in investment. In this, the deal gives Singh’s secular, moderate Congress party its best counter to the BJP’s populist rhetoric, and its best hope at retaining power and stabilizing the region.

And then there is us. In addition to previous misgivings, lawmakers will claim that sharing nuclear technology with a country that could soon be run by a right-wing government makes little sense. However, this ignores the fact that India is already a nuclear weapons state and killing the deal will do nothing to reverse this 30-year-old reality while undercutting Singh’s chances at maintaining political control.

Whatever risks were attached to the deal before the Bhutto assassination have not dissipated by any means, but are instead overshadowed by the prospect of an instability that is regional in nature, global in reach and perpetually operating against a nuclear backdrop. Beyond everything else, the assassination’s enduring symbolism is that it has reinforced how tethered Pakistan, and by extension India’s future, is with the rest of world’s.

If the treaty arrives on our shores, Congress should be ready for what could be the second most important foreign policy decision it will ever make.

Mikhail is a former staff writer for The Hill.