American President George W Bush's first visit to India is due next week, but the list of questions on top of everyone's mind is long.
What will happen to the India-US nuclear deal that requires India to separate its civil and military nuclear energy entities?
What will happen to India's nuclear programme?
What will happen to the fast breeder reactor programme?
Is India under American pressure?
What concrete gains will come out of the Bush visit?
Managing Editor (National Affairs) Sheela Bhatt clears the air.
Just where does the India-US nuclear deal stand?
All of us, the media, scientists, politicians, nuclear experts, strategic experts, concerned people, critics of all shades and readers like you, are debating not the India-US nuclear deal -- which is still being ironed out -- but the perception of the deal.
Since July 18 last year, we have been debating the politics of the deal -- not the deal itself.
Two select groups of Indians and Americans are handling the actual bargaining and tough negotiations.
They have planned four stages of talks.
First, they need to arrive at an agreement for the separation plan.
Second, the US will have to change its existing laws to implement the deal.
Third, safeguards will be discussed and bargained for.
Fourth, additional safeguards will be negotiated.
All these stages need tough minds. And they need each country to be united within.
China has gone through the same exercise with America.
The details of the negotiations between India and America on the nuclear deal are hardly in the public domain.
So far, only Department of Atomic Energy Secretary Anil Kakodkar has spoken his mind. He has made public his concern over placing indigenously built fast breeder reactors in the civilian list.
Besides Dr Kakodkar, no one else from the Indian side has said anything substantial or given giving us any finer details of the deal or the actual calibrated bargaining.
Reams have been written on the nuclear deal, but no newspaper or expert has published the names of the members of the Nuclear Working Group on both sides who are assisting Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran and American Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns.
So, is the deal on or off?
We believe something on the lines of the US-China Nuclear Energy Cooperation Agreement should come through during the Bush visit.
It will be an agreement that can convince the United States Congress to change its laws.
Also, Indians should not forget that the Americans, the Chinese and other nuclear power countries are concerned about India's nuclear programme because they think that New Delhi has stockpiled plutonium.
The nuclear nations' concerns are the real speed breakers on the road to India's exit from the 'sanctions' regime.
Unless the world is convinced about the safeguards in all future Indian power generation plants built with foreign help -- as well as in existing plants producing nuclear energy for civilian purposes -- no deal is possible with the US.
When the US wanted to help China with civilian nuclear technology, quite similar arguments, debates and allegations were made.
Since China is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and also a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the terms and conditions will differ in India's case as far as the safeguards are concerned.
But the tenor and logic of the American argument need attention.
If you read documents about the US Congress' concerns about exporting nuclear technology to China, you will wonder if you are watching an action replay in India.
If the US can help China, why can't it help India?
We believe that President Bush and Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh may herald a new chapter in Indian-American cooperation in various fields -- including security and energy -- during this visit.
A joint statement is likely to be issued after the summit-level talks between Bush and Dr Singh.
We can safely say that 'No nuclear agreement between India and US' is the most unlikely headline on March 3 in Indian newspapers.
According to a top level source in the government, nuclear non-proliferation hawks will be proven wrong.
When Foreign Secretary Saran visited China, he tried to make China understand India's need for energy, says China expert Srikanth Kondapalli.
"One should not be surprised if China comes forward with its nuclear technology (for India) if and when this deal comes through," says Kondapalli.
Why did Dr Kakodkar's anguish become public? Why does it appear as if the Manmohan Singh government is working under US pressure?
First, the Congress party machinery is not backing Prime Minister Singh enough in creating a buzz around the deal as much as the Bharatiya Janata Party helped then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in his negotiations with the Americans.
And let me remind you -- as non-proliferation expert George Perkovich pointed out on the Rediff Chat -- that it was India who wanted the nuclear deal.
The Next Steps in Strategic Partnership, which were agreed upon during the Vajpayee government with the US, included 'civil nuclear energy dialogue'.
The US had then not shown any interest. Neither did anyone accuse Vajpayee of acting against national interest. Then national security advisor Brajesh Mishra has accepted on television that he did offer US a separation of India's civilian and military nuclear facilities plan.
Second, Prime Minister Singh is a scholar but not a seasoned politician who can sell his ideas to the masses. He is yet to learn the art of handling the politics of decisions of great national importance.
The atmosphere is vitiated also because hawks in Washington went too far in their campaign against India. Neither the Indian government nor the hawks in New Delhi did anything to counter the Americans' arguments.
The hawks' attack was part of the Bush administration's efforts to win the psychological edge at the negotiating table. Only on March 2 will we know whether the American or the Indian were the better negotiators.
But it seems Dr Kakodkar's outburst has helped the Indian cause.
Diplomats are of view that Dr Kakodkar, as the custodian of India's civil and military nuclear energy establishment, has every right to express his concerns. His arguments are perceived as 'reasonable and understandable.'
A senior government officer reminded us that Prime Minister Singh has given an assurance to the nation that he will move ahead in cementing the nuclear deal only after securing Dr Kakodkar -- and thereby, the Indian nuclear establishment's approval.
It seems that Dr Kakodkar's two deputies -- who are part of the Nuclear Working Group headed by Foreign Secretary Saran -- are already convinced that only the civilian nuclear energy entities will be put on the civilian list and not the military one.
India will have to present a 'credible and transparent' separation plan, but only about its civil energy programme, and not about its military programme.
A senior Defence Research and Development Organisation officer is also part of the Nuclear Working Group. He keeps General J J Singh, Chief of the Army Staff, informed about the progress of the nuclear deal.
Dr Kakodkar has said clearly that fast breeder reactors are necessary for minimum deterrence.
The fast breeder reactor programme will not be part of the civilian list. However, research and development entities are likely to be put under safeguards.
What will happen to the fast breeder reactors?
Indian Ambassador to the US Ronen Sen -- himself a member of the Atomic Energy Commission in the late 1980s -- has clarified that the fast breeder reactors will not be affected by the nuclear deal.
However, in the long term, more important is the technical issue of safeguards. Which type of safeguards, how intense and how many of them India accepts will be matters of greater concern if this deal comes through.
The rounds of negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency will also require nerves of steel.
The easiest criteria to judge if India has gained out of the deal or not is to see that whether or not the July 18 agreement is followed -- in spirit and letter -- by both leaders.
According to the agreement, India would reciprocally agree that it would be ready to assume the same responsibilities and practices and acquire the same benefits and advantages as other leading countries with advanced nuclear technology, such as the United States.
However, the India-US nuclear deal is unlikely to fail completely because both nations have invested too much into it.
So there is nothing to worry over the issue of separation of India's civilian and military nuclear facilities?
The issues at stakes are serious. As Dr A N Prasad pointed out to rediff.com, it's a matter of the national interest.
Indians have conceived the July 18 agreement as the recognition as a nuclear power.
But the Americans are looking at the nuclear deal from the viewpoint of non-proliferation, business and strategic partnership in South Asia.
This fundamental difference has only become sharper in the days since July 18 last year.
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