The diplomatic scuffle that erupted over the fate of an Indian consulate officer in New York indicted for visa fraud and the illegal exploitation of her domestic servant sank Indian-American relations to their lowest level in decades. But that might be only a prelude to more trouble to come in 2014.
India and the United States remain in a standoff over the implementation of a nuclear trade agreement signed during the administration of George W. Bush in 2005 and entered into force in 2008, which in the eyes of the most respected arms control experts has done incalculable damage to international arms control agreements. In late March, India will again try to elbow its way into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an international body of forty-six members who pledge to uphold verifiable arms control treaties that the Indians have refused to sign, prime among them the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. India wants the United States to back its extraordinary bid; other nations are balking.
In April, national elections are scheduled to begin in India—they are staggered over a period of weeks—in which the front-running candidate to lead the next national government is a politician accused of condoning a pogrom against Muslims in the state of Gujarat in 2002 in which more than 1,000 people died. The politician, Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat and leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has since been denied entry to the United States because of the killings. He is supported by radical Hindu nationalists in India—and American business interests eyeing investment opportunities in his state and maybe nationwide if he becomes prime minister. How will the White House handle this if or when official visits are discussed?
Internationally, India has stalled or demanded exceptional treatment in important negotiations on climate change, particularly emissions standards. It is now the third largest emitter of carbon dioxide, after China and the United States. Its levels of air pollution generally, especially in the Indian capital, Delhi, have recently outdone Beijing’s notorious toxic smog. Global trade agreements have also been difficult to achieve with Indian negotiators in the room.
Trade issues and the nuclear nonproliferation goals promoted by President Barack Obama intersect. Under the civilian nuclear agreement, which the Obama administration upheld even as the president was organizing nuclear disarmament summits, India is permitted to import technology and fuel for its under-performing power-generating reactors, and allow foreign investment in their development. Outside expertise is needed; a former US ambassador described maintenance and security at reactors as being “in shambles.” American energy corporations, so keen initially to see the deal go through, have been sidelined by unexpected Indian legislation that would impose huge unforeseen and unacceptable liabilities on them in case of accidents or other malfunctions. Meanwhile other countries are reaping the rewards of the US-India deal, including Russia and, most recently, Japan.
On the nonproliferation side, the US-India civilian nuclear trade agreement is thought to be enhancing India’s ability to concentrate on weapons development. It is often forgotten, in the light of Pakistan’s dangerous nuclear program, that India started the South Asian atomic arms race in 1974, with a bomb test under the government of Indira Gandhi. India then detonated up to five more explosions in 1998, prompting Pakistan to follow suit with its first nuclear weapons tests the same year. Neither country is open to inspection of its weapons facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency, though civilian reactors are supposed to be monitored in India according to the terms of the US agreement.