US President Barack Obama’s recently-concluded three-day visit to India has been touted as a resounding success by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance. Its leaders are particularly euphoric about the finalisation of the long-pending Indo-US civil nuclear deal.

The breakthrough in the six-year-old impasse, which had held up the implementation of the deal, has  predictably been credited to the personal chemistry between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Obama.

The subject was clearly the highlight of the joint press conference addressed by Obama and Modi with both leaders agreeing that the agreement on the civil nuclear cooperation would further elevate the relationship between New Delhi and Washington.

As the ruling alliance celebrated Modi’s success in sealing the stalled nuclear deal, the NDA government and much of the public gave little thought to the man who made this possible. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the original architect of the controversial nuclear pact, was almost forgotten.

Contribution is ignored

Manmohan Singh’s contribution in sealing the nuclear with Obama’s predecessor George Bush remained unacknowledged by Modi and, except for a stray comment in television discussions, was largely glossed over by the media.

Once hailed by the press as “Singh is King” for his dogged pursuit of the nuclear deal, Manmohan Singh was relegated to the margins.

There was also no word from the Americans about Manmohan Singh’s role in initiating the nuclear deal with the US, though Obama is said to have acknowledged his contribution when a Congress delegation, including the former Prime Minister, met the US president in his hotel suite after the Republic Day parade.

"Obama acknowledged the contribution of the UPA government, which scripted this agreement,” former Union minister Anand Sharma, who was also part of the delegation, told press persons after the meeting. “We had made that decision despite risks involved. We had even risked our government then...We will look at the assurances given to both sides on the agreement that was signed in 2008 ending the nuclear apartheid to India."

A footnote 

Today, it may be viewed as a footnote in contemporary history but there is no denying that it was Manmohan Singh’s personal effort and determination over five years that ensured that the historic Indo-US civil nuclear agreement eventually became a reality.

But it was not an easy journey for the former Prime Minister. He was personally convinced that the agreement would end India’s nuclear isolation and give the country access to much-needed technology for its space and nuclear programmes. But the former Prime Minister was hobbled by the fact that he was heading a coalition government that was critically dependent on the outside support of the Left parties whose anti-US stance was well-known.

Not only did Manmohan Singh have to deal with opposition from the Communists, he also had to battle his own party and the bureaucracy, which had strong reservations about improving ties with the US.  The scepticism in the Congress was attributed to the party’s long-held belief in a non-aligned foreign policy as enunciated by Jawaharlal Nehru and the country’s subsequent tilt towards the Soviet Union. In addition, the party was worried that the UPA government’s pro-US shift could alienate the Muslim community which was not favourably inclined towards George Bush.

Sanjaya Baru, who was Manmohan Singh’s media advisor during this crucial period, has given a detailed account of how the former Prime Minister managed to beat down his opponents in his hugely-successful book, The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh.

Keeping up the pressure

Baru has recounted how Manmohan Singh negotiated with the Communists and his own party and how he even threatened to resign if he was not allowed to pursue this agreement. While the Congress eventually fell in line after party president Sonia Gandhi publicly backed Manmohan Singh on this deal, the Left parties were not happy that the United Progressive Alliance had decided to go ahead with the negotiations and eventually walked out of the government.

The UPA came close to collapse and, at one stage, it appeared that the government and the deal would fall through. But a determined Manmohan Singh stayed the course and the UPA government survived a crucial trust vote when the Mulayum Singh-led Samajwadi Party, which had initially opposed the nuclear pact, changed its stance and bailed out  the government.

The BJP, the main opposition party then, was also not enamoured by  Manmohan Singh’s pursuit of this nuclear agreement and used every possible opportunity to derail the negotiations. The BJP cornered the UPA government in general and Manmohan Singh in particular on several occasions in Parliament over their growing proximity to the US, often describing the agreement as a sell-out to America. The BJP’s opposition was indeed ironical as it was former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee who laid the foundation for this agreement during his tenure.

This is a far cry from the BJP’s present excitement over the “chemistry between Obama and Modi” amplified by the bear hug exchanged by the two leaders at the airport last week. The party also appears to have forgotten its old objections to the nuclear deal. Modi was particularly thrilled at finally ending the logjam over the nuclear liability bill. He even went as far as to describe the nuclear agreement as a “centrepiece” of  the improved relations between the two countries.

"The civil nuclear agreement”, Modi declared at the joint press conference with Obama “was the centrepiece of our transformed relationship, which demonstrated new trust. It also created new economic opportunities and expanded our option for clean energy."

Sticking point

While the heavy lifting over the nuclear pact was undertaken during Manmohan Singh’s regime, the agreement could not implemented as  the American equipment suppliers did not agree with the provisions of the Indian liability law which held  the suppliers  liable in case of an accident.  The US and other Western countries have been pressing India to follow global norms under which the liability rests with the operator.

On its part, the US had been demanding that it should be allowed to track nuclear material it supplies to India. New Delhi was not agreeable to this.

Although no details have been provided about their agreement, Modi and Obama declared  that these outstanding issues, which had held up the implementation of the nuclear deal for six years, had been sorted out.

The Congress has been quick to take credit for the deal but it has not rushed to endorse the Obama-Modi agreement, stating that it will first have to study the fine print. It is now to be seen if the Congress will follow in the footsteps of the BJP when it was in the opposition.