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The longstanding unanimity of views among the nuclear ‘haves’ – the Big Five comprising the US, Britain, France, Russia and China – on India’s nuclear status was again confirmed during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent visit to Russia.

By hinting that India should abide by its recent agreement with the US on the nuclear issue, Moscow indicated that it was with its old adversary, Washington, on this matter.

There is nothing surprising about this attitude since even at the height of the Cold War, the then Soviet Union had not hesitated to side with the US to advise India to accept the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) even though Moscow was one of New Delhi’s closest friends.

What this stance showed was that when it came to nuclear power, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council had no differences over refusing an outsider entry to their exclusive club.

India was – and still is – an outsider, having refused to sign the NPT and acquiring a nuclear arsenal in defiance of world opinion, as the nuclear ‘haves’ allege. Pakistan and Israel too are in the same category, with the exception that the latter has not officially let it be known that it possesses nuclear weapons. Besides, Israel’s closeness to the US makes it less vulnerable to American pressure.

It was only in last July that the US agreed to formally accept India’s nuclear status in an unprecedented departure from the norms of the NPT, demonstrating how the world had changed since the end of the Cold War. India’s reputation as a responsible power induced America to modify its earlier policy.

The conditions laid down in the India-US agreement were endorsed by President Vladimir Putin during Manmohan Singh’s visit when he advised India to continue with its task of separating military and civilian nuclear facilities – the first step which would let India into the nuclear club.

Once India moves in this direction, Russia would “have an opportunity to participate and contribute to its (India’s) huge projects and programmes for the peaceful use of nuclear energy”, according to President Putin.

But notwithstanding these promises, accompanied by a reiteration of the traditionally close relationship between India and Russia, it is obvious that India’s nuclear future still remains uncertain.

As much was evident from Russia’s reluctance to provide India with two to four reactors for the Kudankulam nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu (over and above the two 1,000 MW reactors it has already provided) unless the 44-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), of which Russia is a member, was convinced that India was seriously engaged in separating its military and civilian facilities. Moscow has also been hesitant in the matter of supplying enriched uranium for the Tarapur plant.

Norway’s objection to relax the norms of the NSG on supplying nuclear know-how to India unless the latter signs the NPT shows that New Delhi continues to face roadblocks despite American assurances. Norway’s views were communicated to India during the visit of its Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg to New Delhi.

Given the uncertainty about the supply of gas from Iran, the urgency of India’s need to generate power from nuclear reactors is obvious, especially since the country cannot continue to depend on coal and oil forever. But there are several reasons why progress on this front is bound to be slow.

First, there is continuing resistance within India to the agreement with the US because of the belief that it amounts to a surrender of sovereignty. In some respects, this attitude is reminiscent of the old Cold War mindset, which detects signs of American ‘imperialism’ in such projects.

However, American unilateralism, evident in its categorisation of Iran as part of an ‘axis of evil’, coupled with occasional Israeli threats to bomb Iran’s nuclear installations, has raised doubts about US intentions. Washington could have assuaged such feelings by backing India’s claim to be a permanent UN Security Council seat. But it has shown that it intends to do nothing at the moment, presumably in deference to Pakistan and China’s objections.

Second, there is strong opposition within the US to the agreement from both the Republicans and the Democrats, many of whom see it as a huge concession to India despite the latter’s rejection of the NPT and the testing of nuclear weapons.

India, therefore, may take its time in carrying out the separation of its military and civilian facilities unless there are surer signs of the Bush administration being able to persuade Congress to endorse the agreement. However, President Bush’s low ratings over Iraq raise doubts as to whether it will be able to do so.

Yet, Washington is insisting that unless India takes the first step of separation, it cannot ask Congress for endorsement. It is therefore something of a chicken-and-egg situation. In any event, the separation will be a costly, complicated and long-drawn process.

Besides, India will have to first make up its mind about the size of its nuclear arsenal and the number of reactors it would need for the purpose. Once it identifies the military and civilian installations, the latter will be open to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency. There is little indication, however, that New Delhi is pursuing this task with speed and determination.