by Abhijit Iyer-Mitra

Former Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale has finally confirmed officially what many of us had known for a long time: that China had used the Left parties to scuttle the India-US nuclear deal. Obviously, the Left parties have denied any collusion, but the facts are as clear as day that whether or not the Chinese government and India’s Left parties actively colluded, they had a mutual interest in scuttling the deal. Let us examine the sequence of events and facts

Officially the Communist Party’s line is that they opposed the nuclear deal because it brought India and the United States closer together. Of course, for the Left, anybody getting closer to the United States is “slavery” because you know India according to them is a weak, pathetic state that is simply incapable of looking after its own interests. In response to Gokhale’s accusations, India’s Communist leadership has fallen back on this oft-repeated trope of theirs. It is however curious that this doctrinaire argument was in fact developed after repeated trips to China and dovetails perfectly with China’s strategy of keeping those who challenge it divided and weak. But motives and weak argumentation aside, let us refresh our memory as to what exactly happened in 2008 and what has happened subsequently.

The India-US nuclear deal was a necessary precursor to end the nuclear apartheid against India. The main reason for this was that for the US to put diplomatic support behind ending India’s nuclear isolation, it first had to bypass domestic laws that prevented supporting a non-nuclear weapons state. Negotiations on this started in 2007 and came to fruition finally in 2008. Save for the requirement that India has to clearly divide its nuclear infrastructure into civilian and military and allow the former to be placed under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) watch, there are virtually no restrictions placed on India’s nuclear weapons program.

While America did expect some of its nuclear power companies to be given contracts to build reactors in India, as of 2021 (that is to say 13 years on) no such contract has materialised. Clearly, this means that neither the restrictions placed on India were onerous nor did they engender any form of additional dependency on the United States. It must be noted that India had been buying a moderate quantity of weaponry from the United States before this deal and continues to buy a moderate quantity of weapons after the deal.

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Similarly when it comes to joint military exercises, the same set of exercises carried out with the United States before the deal continue to be carried out after the deal. This alone makes Sitaram Yechury’s claim of “what instead has happened is India has become, seen in the world and acting as a subordinate ally of USA and that is not in India’s interest” seem bizarre and disjointed from reality. At best, we can assume this is a rhetorical fig leaf to divert from the fact that the motives of China and the CPI(M) seemed similar and they were seemingly acting in lockstep.

But the problem is that Yechury’s explanation also seems to be extremely mendacious. At one point in his interview he says, “If China had opposed the nuclear deal it would not have given waiver to India in the Nuclear Suppliers Group”. This is entirely untrue. What had happened at the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) was that initially India’s National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon had been given assurances by China that they would support the India exception at the IAEA. Yet, it turned out that China was actively coordinating with a group of smaller countries such as Austria and Ireland to block India’s membership.

A rather interesting conversation that I had with then Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik confirmed many of these suspicions during the 2013 Munich security conference. Austria of course had its own concerns, specifically with regards to how an India exception would green light proliferation by others, but the very fact that China had been coordinating and encouraging Austrian resistance to the India exception was extremely revealing. Curiously, then Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi had passed off this coordination as China playing an “extremely constructive role”.

Once severe American pressure had forced both the Irish and Austrians to back off (including at one point Condoleezza Rice deploying her bodyguards to physically restrain Ursula Plassnik who had been avoiding Rice), the rear guard action that the Chinese had promised the Irish and Austrians never materialised. This seems to have been the main reason that when India’s membership of the NSG was up for consideration in 2016, Austria and Ireland forcefully told the Chinese that given China’s past duplicity, this time it was China’s turn to fight in the frontlines and that they would play rear guard. Predictably in 2016, China proved implacably hostile from the get go.

Let us be clear, former Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale’s book does not provide us with clinching evidence that the Chinese coordinated with the CPI(M) to scuttle the India-US nuclear deal. However Sitaram Yechury’s transparently flawed logic and blatantly mendacious apologia for Chinese actions only reinforce the circumstantial evidence that already exists indicating collusion. All of this must be taken in conjunction with what Sanjaya Baru says in his book The Accidental Prime Minister about the role of another known China apologist N. Ram of The Hindu in coordinating with the Left parties and claiming to be trying to break the deadlock.

Cumulatively, it would seem that the preponderance of evidence, including carefully worded half-truths and outright lies of the CPI(M), diminishes the credibility of its denials. On the other hand, a lot of what we know about the events of 2008 and subsequent happenings significantly back up the former Foreign Secretary’s version of events.