New Delhi: India’s ambassador to the US, Ronen Sen never became foreign secretary but is nevertheless counted among the most influential diplomats the Indian Foreign Service has ever had. As a joint secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office in 1986-91, he got to know Rajiv Gandhi, prime minister in 1984-89, very well and travelled with him across the world. Some say his proximity to Congress party president Sonia Gandhi stems from that period, which is how he was able to push the Indo-US nuclear deal through over the last three years as it stumbled and stalled under domestic political pressure.

In an interview, Sen spoke about the nuclear deal and Indo-US relations before US President George Bush signs the Indo-US 123 agreement into law on 8 October. Edited excerpts:

US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice has been here in Delhi last week, but there was no signing of the 123 Agreement although it has been passed by both the US Senate and House of Representatives. Why?

One, because no signing was expected. There was some speculation that it was not signed during the PM’s visit to Washington some days ago and now as well. Fact is, the procedures have not been completed in the US and we expect that to be done very shortly.

Click here to watch part - I of the interview


You are talking about the fact that the President has to make a statement?

Basically, he has to sign the 123 Agreement into law. So far, it is the authorization of lCongress, but it is not law. The legal and administrative process is not complete, and this is a matter of a few days.

Are you saying that external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee will travel to the US and there will be a signing after the US President signs it into law?

There will be a signing and I hope it will be between secretary Rice and Mr Pranab Mukherjee, because I think this agreement is of a nature which deserves to be signed at that level.

Do you think this is one of the most interesting and best deals that India has ever got?

In terms of landmarks in foreign policy, this is one of the most important landmarks since independence.

Click here to watch part - II of the interview


Why do you think this is such a big landmark?

Primarily, because of the abiding image during the Bangladesh crisis, (when) the USS Enterprise (entered) the Bay of Bengal, during the Nixon administration. The second event which had a profound influence in which I was involved as well was the unilateral abrogation of the Tarapur agreement after the peaceful nuclear explosion in 1974.

Are you saying that because of the Indo-US nuclear deal the lack of trust has been overcome?

That is the most important aspect. You’ve just about got it right. In our relationship the most high-profile events were under a Republican administration, under Nixon, and the other low point came during a Democrat president, Jimmy Carter. There was a feeling in India that the US could not be expected to keep to its word, there was some motivation attributed to it… (Although) at the height of the Cold War we had very good cooperation, such as the Green Revolution…

Gunning for deal: Ronen Sen says that the Indo-US nuclear deal is one of the most important landmarks in foreign policy since Indian independence, and that trust has been restored between the two countries. Lauren Victoria Burke / AP

Manmohan Singh’s meeting with George Bush recently in Washington, DC, where he said India loves you (Bush) deeply, do you think it was a case of overstatement?

It’s how he feels about it. One thing I can tell you, pretty objectively, it might not be apparent, but as you look back, having been involved as I was, there was a feeling of betrayal those days… These realities have changed dramatically under the Bush administration.

Betrayal has been transformed into love, do you think?

It can now be truly called a strategic partnership. One that is not based on tactical considerations but on (long-term objectives)...

So, not love, but a strategic partnership...

A strategic partnership based on trust… You can’t say I trust you 20% or 85%. When you trust someone you trust them totally. That trust has been restored and this is critical, (there is now) a trust between two democracies.

The Left parties broke with the United Progressive Alliance at home because they said they did not trust America. Why do you think they did this? Was it because of an ideological relationship with the Chinese Communist Party?

I would not like to make any judgements, because in any democracy, discourse and dissent are essential element. So we can have differences of opinion without calling into question the patriotism of individuals…

But you were disappointed the Left parties did this?

The change has been so rapid in this administration, particularly during the last four years, that it is natural for perceptions to take time to change, to sink in. Because these were deeply entrenched views, not only in the Left. I personally had a sense of betrayal when I was working in the Atomic Energy Commission because I knew what we went through...

What about the Bharatiya Janata Party? Do you think the BJP went back on what it started?

You are right that the process was started when Mr (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee was prime minister, after the 1998 nuclear tests when the most intensive dialogue between India and the US took place...

Did you feel that partisan politics was coming in the way of national interest, both with the BJP and the Left?

As I said, the change has been so breathtakingly rapid, everything was being made to stand on its head. You had a country which created a group called the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) essentially in reaction to India’s nuclear test in 1974, where India was a target… And now the NSG as well as the Americans have essentially recognized that India is a nuclear weapons state.

Who do you think was the key player within the US who pushed the deal?

It was undoubtedly President Bush. Both him and secretary of state Condoleezza Rice are an incredibly fine team. This radically new approach to India where India was seen not in the distorting perspective of a sub-regional context, but in global terms…

Not as an India-Pakistan hyphen…

Exactly, but in much broader terms. Not even as an Asian but in a global context, as an emerging global power, where it was in the US’ interest to establish a partnership with India. Bush was the first president to conceive of this.

But why did he do this?

This was a conviction of President Bush. India being the world’s largest democracy, being the stabilizing factor in a region of considerable turmoil, which affects not only the region, but the world, and India being a growing market…

I want to ask you about Iran. Why did India twice vote against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)? Didn’t it exacerbate the domestic debate, or was this the only way to get the Americans on board and push the Indo-US nuclear deal?

Absolutely not. I made it clear time and time again that India’s policies with regard to any country, there is no quid pro quo and there will be no quid pro quo. These policies will be determined in Delhi and not in any other capital. India is too old a civilization, too big a country and too vibrant a democracy to follow the lead of any country, however friendly it might be and however much it is a trusted partner.

Now the deal is through, do you think India should redouble efforts to mend its relationship with Iran and since we’re talking about energy, the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline is a good idea?

We should act in what is in the best interest of India. When you talk about India voting against Iran, it’s not correct that we voted against Iran with an eye to what was happening in the US, but we took a view in terms of the position taken by the International Atomic Energy Agency and its board of governors which was shared by the majority…

Iran was violating the NPT (nuclear non-proliferation treaty)?

Iran had assumed obligations on its own and it was not the assessment of the majority in the IAEA that Iran was exactly living up to those obligations.

And India shared those views?

We shared those views, therefore we voted in a particular manner. But Iran had also taken a lead in saying that India should sign the NPT, repeatedly it has taken the lead in saying so. But no relationship is a one-issue relationship, we have ancient civilizational ties…

So should we move on? Do you think the Iran-India gas pipeline is a good idea?

There are a lot of good ideas and I think we should move forward with what we determine to be in our national interest.

You’re not saying it is a good idea?

It makes sense… We need to diversify our energy portfolio.

And Iran would be a good country to work with?

Naturally, it’s close to us. But when these decisions are taken, when you talk about a pipeline, firstly you have to establish its techno-economic viability, then you have to find potential investors, so you have to look at the security situation, in Baluchistan and elsewhere, because energy security is a vital part of our national security, so we should not go on an ideological high-horse, that we have to have (the pipeline), and it should be there.

Last question on Pakistan. Do you think the US would like India to work more closely together on Pakistan?

We will have to see what is in our interest, and our interest dictates that our immediate neighbourhood should be stable.