The Nuke Deal is Dead

On October 12, 2007, the Congress Party threw in the towel. India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the leader of the United Progressive Alliance Sonia Gandhi told the press that they would step back from the US-India nuclear deal. “If the deal does not come through,” Singh said plaintively, “that is not the end of life. In politics, we must survive short-term battles to address long-term concerns.”

The short-term battle was won by the Communists, who led the opposition to the deal and winnowed regional parties away from the Congress and toward their position. The Communists’ stance is that the nuclear deal (set in motion in 2005) is only one part of a wider embrace between the Indian and US governments, and between Indian and US-based corporations. Apart from nuclear cooperation, the alliance is geared toward partnership between India and the US in democracy promotion, the opening up of the Indian economy to unleashed turbo-capitalism, and a strategic military alliance. The US architects of this linkage saw the last point as the lever: US State Department official Christina Rocca said (in 2002), “Military-to-military cooperation is now producing tangible progress towards [the] objective [of] strategic, diplomatic and political cooperation as well as sound economic ties.” Wal-Mart would follow the USS Nimitz into Chennai harbor. Seen in this way, the Communist challenge is not restricted to the nuclear deal, although its defeat gives momentum to wider struggles against the drawing in of India to the platform of US-led imperialism.

From 2005 onward, the Communists led a nation-wide fight to reveal the class basis of these deals. They are not without their benefit to a certain kind of India. Entrepreneurs would get quid pro quo tie-ins with US firms, and Indian arms dealers and nuclear businesses would benefit from the commerce. The fact of an alliance would give a cultural fillip to the growing Indian middle class, for whom its “arrival” on the world stage could be signaled by this deal. Faced with its defeat, the Indian Ambassador to the US Ronen Sen spoke for the class that hoped it would come through, “I can understand [such a debate over the deal] immediately after [India’s] independence. But sixty years after independence! I am really bothered that sixty years after independence they are so insecure ­ that we have not grown up, this lack of confidence and lack of self-respect.”

As the debate over the deal heated up in India, the navies of the Quad (Australia, India, Japan, and the US) held a war game off the western coast of India. The Communists used this act to highlight the implications of the deal. One jatha (column) left Kolkata and the other left Chennai to converge on the port city of Vishakapatnam on September 8 for a massive rally. This was a contemporary version of Gandhi’s Salt March. Back in Delhi a few days later, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s General Secretary, Prakash Karat, led a march to parliament and said, “we demand that the government not proceed with the deal unless it satisfies the people’s objections.” A month later, this is just what the Congress Party had to do.


If you land in Tbilisi, Georgia, the road that takes you into town from the airport is named the George W. Bush Avenue. It is not the only one. In Baghdad, the benighted throughway parallel to Haifa Street has the same name (a suicide bomber destroyed the MacDonald’s on it in 2004). One of these roads, the latter, is a consequence of an imperial occupation. The US viceroy could as easily have named the street for George Bush’s cat (named India, by the way). The other road, the one in Georgia, comes from the condition of satrapy: Georgia has troops in Iraq (guarding the Green Zone), and its current President Mikheil Saakashvili is eager to join NATO, the European Union, and to be in any way helpful to the US as possible.

India’s elite desperately sought this kind of Georgian servility. From 1947 to 1991, the Indian elite and nascent middle class were constrained by a compact to fashion a national economy and strategic autonomy. In the 1980s, for a variety of reasons, the Indian elite and now a fairly confident middle class broke away from the shackles of the national compact and sought to assert itself both on the domestic and international stage. The patriotism of the bottom line predominated over that of the national imaginary. A crippled exchequer took the Indian government to the International Monetary Fund, which demanded a turn to the market and the cannibalization of a state structure geared (in some small measure) to provide some benefits across class.

The elite and middle class had, largely, relieved themselves from the past even if the institutions still held them back. This class was both born of and raised by the import-substitution industrialization policies of the earlier national compact. A highly educated group of people, they burned for upward mobility. The attachment of this class to the graded inequality of the global capitalist system is driven by its own aspirations to rise up the ladder. These interests coalesced with much more powerful forces: the ruling classes in places such as India, Brazil, and South Africa, the organized might of the Group of Seven, the various international financial conglomerates. This class has its annual meeting at Davos, Switzerland. Its mouthpiece is Thomas Friedman.

As the Indian psychologist Sudhir Kakar put it, “This class somehow has the ability to transmute a flame into a blaze.” The biographer of this class, Pavan K. Varma, writes that although it “thinks out of the box,” and is “a hugely entrepreneurial class,” it “may be bent on cloning itself on the West.” At the same time, in India there are now more people in extreme poverty than before 1991. In 1995, the World Health Organization reported that a single ailment “conspires with the most deadly and painful diseases to bring a wretched existence to all who suffer from it”: this silent ailment is Z59.5, the WHO’s code for “extreme poverty.”

In a parliament of 545, the Communist bloc is only sixty. These parliamentarians come in the main from West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, the three areas where the Left has a very strong presence. Elsewhere in the country, the Left has pockets of influence (Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Maharashtra), but is unable to translate this in electoral terms (drawing in about 2% of the votes at most). The bulk of the parliament is divided between two blocs, the soft right Congress and its allies (217 seats) and the hard right BJP and its allies (185 seats). Regional parties that do not line up with these three major blocs hold the remaining 78 seats (among them, the largest is a party close to the Left, the Samajwadi or Socialist Party, with 36 seats; although it has long since jettisoned its socialism for a corrupt populism). The elite and middle class are split between the hard and soft right on such issues as their attitude toward what in India is called communalism (fundamentalism: the ideology of Hindutva). On issues of social and economic welfare, the two blocs are virtually indistinguishable, except that the Congress has within it an old Gandhian section that is yet to be extinguished and that enabled the otherwise party of free markets to be held to a Common Minimum Program with the Left on issues such as agrarian policy, this so that the Left would support the Congress government from the outside. The Left, therefore, was the only brake against the enthusiasm of the elite and middle class, both of whom wanted to drown themselves in Bush’s spittle.

Dollars from Rupees.

In the early 1990s, the U. S. administration read the shift in India quite correctly. Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen observed the middle-class of 60 million, the size of France, and salivated. For Bentsen, and for the Clinton administration, the existence of this class and its hitherto suffocated desires meant that there existed a market to help contain the crisis of over-accumulation to which “globalization” was to be the answer. A decline in the annual rate of growth of the global Gross Domestic Product from the 1960s (5.4%) to the 1980s (3%) offered evidence of the crisis, but nothing was as stark as the falling profit rate of the 500 U. S. transnational corporations (4.7% in the late 1950s to -5.3% in the 1980s). Walden Bello recites these figures and concludes, “Oversupply of commodities and inadequate demand are the principle corporate anomalies inhibiting performance in the global economy.”

Bentsen’s comments had a concrete purpose: the US administration hoped, in essence, that India’s middle-class might absorb this oversupply. The Indian government began a long process to dismantle various kinds of social protections for both the national economy and for the dispossessed and exploited classes. This process did not come easily, since the newly confident dominant classes had yet to settle accounts with powerful institutions of the working class and peasantry (trade unions, political parties, socio-political organizations, peasant groups, and on). Nevertheless, by 1994, large sections of industrial production, the extraction sector, utilities, transportation, telecommunications and finance found themselves prey to private investors.

In Washington, DC, the US-India Business Council (USIBC) emerged from hibernation (it was formed in 1975) in the 1990s to lobby for US business interests in India. The USIBC is housed, conveniently, in the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington, from where it pushes against the walls erected in India to protect the national economy from those who want to make dollars out of rupees. For the nuclear deal, the USIBC and the US Chamber of Commerce’s Coalition for Partnership with India drew upon the lobbying expertise of Patton Boggs and Stonebridge International. They had a vested interest in the deal, because it would have allowed U.S. firms to gain contracts in the Indian nuclear sector. In March 2007, the USIBC hosted a 230-member business delegation to India, the Commercial Nuclear Executive Mission. Tim Richards of General Electric (GE) gingerly said of the trip, “We know India’s need for nuclear power” (there is, in fact, no such need; nuclear power would only cover a maximum of seven percent of India’s energy needs). Ron Somers, president of USIBC, said of the purported $60 billion boondoggle that would have come as a result of the deal, “The bounty is enormous.”

As the deal fizzled out, the nuclear moneymen grieved. Russia and France had also already lined up to supply India, and both had begun to lobby the Nuclear Suppliers Group to give the deal a free pass. A few days after Singh told Bush their deal was in cold storage, seventy French delegates from twenty-nine nuclear firms met with three hundred Indian delegates in Mumbai for a discussion on a potential France-India nuclear deal. French Ambassador to India Jerome Bonnafont eagerly anticipated the restarting of nuclear cooperation between the two states, which would provide substantial contracts for the French nuclear industry. They want to make Francs out of Rupees.


India’s ambassador to Washington, Ronen Sen, fretted about the US-India deal’s failure. The Bush team has approved the deal, and so has the Indian cabinet, he carped (he seems to have forgotten his elementary civics: it is parliament that has authority over such deals, not the cabinet ­ a distinction that does not operate so effectively in the US, for all its constitutional checks and balances). “So why do you have all this running around like headless chickens, looking for a comment here or a comment there, and these little storms in a tea-cup.” The parliament has now demanded that Mr. Sen be recalled to India and face questions for his disrespect to the elected officials who opposed the deal.

On the same flight as him will be a delegation from the USINPAC, the face of the new “Indian Lobby” in Washington, who is eager to take lessons from and mimic the Israel Lobby. Robinder Sachdev, who founded the group, told the Press Trust of India, that the emerging opposition to the deal within the US Congress startles him. “It is like being penny wise and pound foolish,” he said. “The US industry will benefit from the nuclear deal.” This is an honesty descried by his friends in the nuclear commerce world. As GE India’s chief executive officer T.P. Chopra told a Wharton periodical, “The last thing we want is to give ammunition to the Left-wing parties. They would love to project the U.S. as greedy capitalists selling the country for a few dollars more. Business will keep silent until it’s signed, sealed and delivered.”

In Mumbai, as the French-Indian delegations met, the Communists held a public rally where they condemned all talk of a nuclear deal. In terms of the US-India deal specifically, Karat of the CPI(M) said, “it is part of the strategic and military relations that the US wants to have with India.” It would never be allowed. In Delhi, meanwhile, Prime Minister Singh said, “I have not given up hope yet.” Hope is all that remains for the convenience seeking bourgeoisie: the spectacle of advanced capitalism beckons, even if the price is to be paid by the millions of people who suffer the trials of Z59.5.

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007. He can be reached at:



Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).