October 14, 2007

INDO-US Nuclear Deal 'paused' only to be revived later


15 Oct 2007, 0005 hrs IST,Indrani Bagchi,TNN

NEW DELHI: The nuclear deal is dead. Long live the nuclear deal. As the import of PM Manmohan Singh and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi’s statements on Friday sink in, the initial reactions ran on expected lines: India would miss the nuclear bus (as the PM warned, not too long ago); we would become the laughing stock of the world, and India’s international standing would be robbed of its trademark authority.

Let’s take a deep breath.

Yes, India and the US were on track to complete the fastest civil nuclear deal between two countries ever, ending a long-standing technology-denial regime against India. Somewhere in the middle of 2008, the US government will cease to be able to push crucial legislation through the Congress. Both sides wanted this deal signed, sealed and delivered before that. To that extent, the UPA government has shot itself in the foot.

The US had worked out a timeline on the next steps of the nuclear deal with India that depended on how fast they could get the completed deal through the NSG and the US Congress, in time for US President George Bush to claim foreign policy victory, before he hangs up his boots.

But given how things turned out in India, the timetable was probably too tight and too stressful. This was the message foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee took to the US earlier this month. The point he made was that his government needed a breather from the Left. Thus, while the foreign office will now be tasked with some serious damage limitation exercise in Washington and other major capitals of the world, key elements of the Bush administration were not surprised at the announcement of the delay. The UPA government, in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with the Left, would never have been able to complete the deal and would have lost the government in the bargain, said senior members of the government who were in the “blink” loop. Instead, by saving the government, they live to fight for the deal another day.

Senior government sources described it as a tactical retreat, which takes the heat off the UPA-Left collision but keeps the government going.

“It’s time to write a new timetable,” they said. The US may grumble, but political realities cannot be wished away. A functioning government, said sources, with a Left that has already shown its cards, is a better bet than a toppled one. “Since our cabinet has signed on this deal, we haven’t killed it, we have let it lie,” a source said.

In 2006, it was the US which delayed the then timetable. While India watched, the Bush administration entered into pitched battles with the non-proliferation lobby and the Tom Lantoses and Barbara Boxers, delaying the Hyde Act, putting in highly avoidable clauses that gave India severe heartburn, and basically ran the clock down. The 123 negotiations too would have been quicker if the US did not spend precious months looking for ways to dilute the fuel supply assurances to India that were promised in the March 2, 2006, joint statement.

The deal is good, said senior government sources, as well as sources in the US. As IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei stressed, it spells the end of technology sanctions against India, and in the absence of any opening up of the NPT, would give India a backdoor entry into the nuclear club. Nothing to sneeze at. For the Indian, uninterested in the nitty-gritty of the negotiations, a deal opposed by Pakistan and China cannot be bad for India!

The Bush administration was possibly more accommodating of India’s interests on the nuclear front than certainly any US government thus far, and probably another one for some time to come. For instance, senior Democrat leaders have left nobody in India in any doubt that, should it be a Democrat administration in the White House in 2009 (and there is a strong possibility of that), they might reopen negotiations on the 123 document to insert conditions that might be difficult for India to swallow. Besides, given their known interests, India might be pressured to sign on the dotted line of CTBT for the nuclear deal.

But there are countries like France, Russia, Japan and others keen to get a foothold in India’s nuclear market. And a willing IAEA to get the safeguards agreement done double quick, when India says so.

No comments: